Public Housing on the Chopping Block?

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) is facing major changes.  A private redevelopment initiative will affect the composition of public housing communities, 340 developments housing 600,000 New Yorkers.  In addition, Mayor Bloomberg is proposing radical changes to its governing board that will affect its capacity to shape its future.  Resident and community leaders need to be alert to what these changes mean and weigh in soon if they want their voices to count in the debate. 

Starvation funding from Washington, and the neglect of local and state government, have put NYCHA in a serious deficit position, with an operating shortfall of $60 million a year and a $7 billion backlog in major capital improvements. Residents are the prime casualties, who have to endure accelerating deterioration and long waits for needed repairs.

NYCHA’s Infill Program

To obtain the revenue it needs to maintain and preserve its public housing, NYCHA is launching the Infill Program, which leases available NYCHA land for private redevelopment: housing and school construction, commercial and retail facilities.  Eight Manhattan developments in “prime market” areas are now targeted — five in the Lower East Side, two in East Harlem, and one on the Upper West Side.  That is the first wave of what NYCHA describes as a growing program that will encompass developments across the boroughs.

Many questions need to be answered before the ink dries on plans and shovels are put into the ground.  What voice will residents and the community have in shaping these plans? Fortunately, no housing authority can dispose of its property without HUD approval of a Section 18 proposal, which requires “resident consultation” in the development of the plan. 

NYCHA is now staging resident meetings at the eight developments, but it is unclear how consultation will proceed and who in the community is included.  Advocates are urging resident leaders to obtain legal representation and any independent technical assistance they need to negotiate with NYCHA to assure any redevelopment addresses the interests of the community.

Part of the growing Infill controversy concerns the private housing to be built and the extent to which it is affordable.  NYCHA is proposing 80/20 housing; that is, high-end market rentals, except for 20 percent for household incomes up to $50,000 (for a family of four).  Income-mixing may be necessary to create the affordable units, but the 80 percent is not acceptable or consistent with NYCHA’s low-income housing mission.  The Authority must require that developers provide a higher proportion of units targeted at lower incomes comparable to public housing residents.

NYCHA estimates it will gain $30 to $50 million in annual revenue from leasing under the current Infill proposal.  That seems small when the mayor, with a stroke of his pen, could relieve NYCHA of nearly $100 million in annual payments to the city, most of it for special police services that are provided free of charge to private landlords.

Governing Board Changes

Recent criticism of the high-salaried NYCHA board has led Mayor Bloomberg to propose legislation in Albany that would radically change how the Authority is governed.  His bill has already been introduced by Keith Wright, Chair of the Assembly Housing Committee, and Martin Golden, Chair of the Senate Committee.

The bill calls for an expanded board of five volunteer members and a salaried chair, all appointed by the mayor.  Two members must be NYCHA residents.  However, all members would serve at the pleasure of the mayor.  This provision flies in the face of federal and state charters that established housing authorities to assure they enjoy a degree of independence from City Hall.  What promotes independence is that board members, except for the chair, are appointed for fixed terms and can be removed only for cause.  With this bill, any member who is not a rubber stamp can be removed by the mayor, like those on the Panel for Education Policy.  The bill would literally turn NYCHA over to whoever is elected mayor.

Public housing is too large and important a part of the city to allow it to be transformed, for better or worse, without substantial input from resident and community leaders.  The Community Service Society is sponsoring a mayoral candidate forum on Saturday, April 20th, that will focus entirely on NYCHA issues and the concerns of public housing residents.  It will be moderated by Michael Powell of The New York Times.  It is free to the public, but space is limited and we ask you to register either online at or call 212-614-5365.

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