Public Housing: Smoke-Free Buildings With Leaking Roofs?

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

Now that HUD has proposed regulations banning smoking in public housing, government concern about the health of residents seems to be gaining currency.  National studies indicate that public housing communities are in poorer health than other communities, in part because the program serves as a safety net for already vulnerable individuals. But the abysmal living conditions that prevail in public housing after decades of government neglect do constitute a significant health threat. That is why preserving public housing is also a health issue. 

The chronic conditions that plague residents include obesity, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and asthma.  Asthma, in particular, is directly related to the physical environment. Conditions known to trigger attacks include mold, insect infestation, dust, overcrowding, and unclean conditions—a common public housing syndrome.  A survey conducted by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) found 35 percent of households included a child with asthma or other respiratory problems. 

In New York City, NYCHA residents struggle daily with aging buildings undergoing accelerated deterioration—crumbling facades, failing elevators, leaking roofs that affect apartments down the line and generate toxic molds.  A recent analysis by the Community Service Society found that they face far worse living conditions than do comparable low-income tenants in the city’s private rental market.  That over a quarter of NYCHA adult residents are either elderly or disabled makes the link between deficient building conditions and resident health even more critical.

A re-energized state and city role

A perfect storm of government disinvestment in recent decades—at all levels of government—accounts for the situation NYCHA is in, with inadequate funds to operate its 178,000 apartments or catch up with a $16 billion backlog in major capital improvements.  It’s commendable that HUD wants to create smoke-free public housing. But foisting the costs associated with monitoring and enforcing such a rule on financially-strapped local authorities only serves as a reminder of the steady federal retreat from public housing.

Thankfully, the city and the state are trying to fill some of the void left by Washington with much-needed capital resources. This year Mayor de Blasio committed $300 million of the city’s capital budget to urgently needed roof replacements. And last March, Gov. Cuomo and the state legislature came through with an unprecedented $100 million drawn from bank settlements.  

A re-energized state and city role seem only fair: In 1998, Gov. Pataki terminated operating subsidies to NYCHA’s 15 state-financed developments and in 2003 Mayor Bloomberg did the same for six city-financed developments. Since the developments were ineligible for federal subsidies, NYCHA had to cover the combined $90 million annual shortfall by stretching limited federal operating subsidies thin, reducing staff, cutting into reserves, and diverting capital subsidies into operations, making matters worse.  By 2010, when these developments were federalized, the cumulative operating shortfall had mounted to a billion dollars.

Unfortunately, Albany seems to share Washington’s myopia concerning the link between preservation and health. In April, NYCHA submitted a plan to use the $100 million for strategic roof replacements in 123 buildings. It argued that roof repairs were critical to preventing multiple leaks in high-rise apartments and the growth of toxic molds.

Fund critical infrastructure needs over “quality of life” improvements

Surprisingly, at Gov. Cuomo’s initiative, the NYCHA plan was set aside in favor of distributing $2 million each to city legislators, who were to submit proposals for developments in their districts.  Pouring salt on the wound, the state guidelines discouraged funding requests for major infrastructural projects while they encouraged “quality of life” improvements, such as lighting, landscaping, recreational equipment, security systems, and appliances.

In October, after the fatal shooting of a policeman in a Manhattan development, the governor announced that $42 million of the state fund would be allocated to security cameras and devices in 79 developments. Safety is a critical concern among residents, high among the many needs they have. But the decision means major infrastructural problems in NYCHA buildings may go unaddressed.

That’s why NYCHA residents are travelling to Albany, again, this time to demand specific funding for roof replacement, mold removal, and other critical infrastructure needs. If resident health is a real concern, the funds should be invested in restoring decent living conditions in NYCHA buildings, rather than more marginal “quality of life” improvements.

Otherwise, if Washington and Albany continue on their present course of ignoring critical preservation needs, security cameras will end up watching over smoke-free public housing developments where buildings are crumbling into disrepair and the roofs leak incessantly. That would be an absurd, inhumane, and disastrous outcome.

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