New York City and the Assault on Public Housing

David R. Jones, The Huffington Post

I've noticed a real hardening of the view of low-wage workers and people living in subsidized housing among business groups and some in the mainstream media. I don't quite understand the vehemence of the attacks on everything from minimum wage to paid sick leave and public housing. I could understand it if business was suffering or the incomes of the very wealthy were falling.

In fact, as a just-released study by the Pew Research Center indicates, in the period 2009-2011, the net worth of households in the upper 7 percent of wealth distribution rose an incredible 28 percent, while those in the lower 93 percent dropped by 4 percent ("An Uneven Recovery, 2009-2011: A Rise in Wealth for the Wealthy; Declines for the Lower 93%," Pew Research Center, April 23, 2013).

So why the anger at calls for minimum wage increases and paid sick leave for low-wage workers running into such vigorous opposition from everyone from Mayor Bloomberg to the New York Chamber of Commerce and both New York tabloids? In my view, with income inequality in New York greater than anywhere else in the country and Mayor Bloomberg's wealth increasing from $22 billion to $27 billion in the past year ("The World's Billionaires," Forbes) I for one would be doing everything to dispense crumbs to the poor, just to show that even though I have my own jet fleet, I still care about the less fortunate. But that's not what's happening and it's probably why I'm not among the super wealthy.

It's against this background that the latest proposal to "save public housing" seems so uniquely bizarre. New York City's Public Housing Authority (NYCHA) owns and manages 179,000 apartments housing at least 500,000 New Yorkers. That's the equivalent of Cleveland, Philadelphia, or Pittsburg.

It's been hemorrhaging money for years and has recently been the subject of scathing attacks for being too slow to spend a billion dollars in capital funds, and its poor response to major suffering among its residents in the wake of Hurricane Sandy because crisis plans were not in place and officials were slow to get needed repairs done quickly. This comes on top of the fact that NYCHA's operating deficit topped $60 million this year.

In fact, the NYCHA deficit is inflicted directly by the city of New York, which charges the Authority $75 million for police protection, something that is provided free of charge to private landlords under Operation Clean Halls, and then, to just pile it on, charges Payment In Lieu of taxes of $23 million, something the Museum of Modern Art isn't assessed because it obviously serves a better class of clientele.

So following the premise that we should kick the powerless as much as possible, the leadership of NYCHA under the mayor's auspices has recommended the leasing of prime real estate holdings on NYCHA's land to private developers for residential construction as a way to raise revenues. Now I have no difficulty seeking new revenue sources for NYCHA. Cutbacks in federal, state, and city support requires new ways to raise funds, but the proposal strikes me as another giveaway to real estate developers.

The plan calls for only 20 percent of the apartments to be "affordable" (the affordable pricing virtually all of the working poor out of the picture), and the rest being market rate. The plan talks about separate entrances for the new apartments so they wouldn't have to encounter any existing NYCHA residents, and little if any input in the planning from existing tenants or local community boards.

This is a deal that is the standard for housing development in the city, which has been the subject of much criticism by housing advocates, and is especially egregious when applied to public housing because the run up in rental prices have led 61 percent of low-income families to routinely spend more than half of their income on rent alone ("Good Place to Work, Hard Place to Live: The Housing Challenge for New York City's Next Mayor," Community Service Society, April 2013) leaving little for food, clothing, and transportation. This is directly responsible for the explosion in the number of homeless families in the city, now having reached 55,000 (Coalition for the Homeless,January 2013).

There is some relief on the horizon. At a recent mayoral forum co-sponsored by CSS and the Teamsters Union, all four of the Democratic mayoral candidates promised to remove the unfair charges for police and Payment and Lieu of taxes. It would be even better if the current administration would revise its plans to better reflect input from tenants and advocates and make serious efforts to make public housing the model for the nation that it has been and should be -- if the city intends to provide decent housing for the one-third of the city that constitutes the working poor.

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