Public Housing: Too Important to Ignore

David R. Jones, La Nueva Mayoria / The New Majority

Public housing is a primary component of the city’s affordable housing infrastructure that helps keep New York a city with a mix of people with a broad range of incomes, rather than a place for just the rich and the very poor.  The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) manages the city’s public housing, 179,000 apartments in 340 developments housing a half-million New Yorkers.  It provides affordable housing to families who otherwise could not afford to pay market rents and live in the city.     

But NYCHA is in serious financial trouble. It has been starved for funds.  The federal government has been slowly getting out of the business of funding affordable housing.  The city and the state have turned their backs on NYCHA, even for operating support of public housing they financed.  NYCHA is operating with a shortfall of $60 million a year and a $7 billion backlog in major capital improvements.  Its residents must endure accelerating deterioration and long waits for needed repairs.

The city has to take some responsibility for seeing that public housing is improved and preserved.  This is not the time to expect more from Washington.  There are two major initiatives that the city should pursue.

First, NYCHA is required to pay the city nearly $100 million annually out of its federal operating funds, most of it for special police services that NYPD provides free of charge to private landlords.  This is a legacy of the Giuliani administration.  Mayor Bloomberg could end this simply by fiat.  That, alone, would cover the operating deficit. 

Secondly, the backlog of major improvements needed to stem deterioration could be significantly reduced with capital commitments from the city.  One source of funding is the excess revenues generated by luxury housing developed in Battery Park City (BPC).  Owned and operated by the Battery Park City Authority, a public corporation created by the state in the 1970s, Battery Park City was originally conceived as a mixed income development.  But affordable housing was dropped from the BPC plan.  Instead, a deal was made to use surplus revenues generated from Battery Park City’s luxury housing to finance the building and rehabilitation of affordable housing in other city neighborhoods.

But for years, these funds were siphoned off into general funds on the pretext that they were needed to balance budgets.  In 2009, Governor Paterson said he needed the $270 million from Battery Park City revenue – a drop in the bucket - to help close a $15 billion deficit. It is time that BPC revenues were committed as intended. They could be an ideal source of funding for NYCHA.   
New York City will elect a new mayor this year.  The candidates must be asked if they have a plan for public housing.  The city’s public housing stock is too important for public officials to ignore.

The next mayor must end the $100 million annual payments by NYCHA to the city.  This alone would go a long way to solving NYCHA’s immediate financial problems.  The city provides capital investments for sports stadiums, museums, and the performing arts.  It should increase its funding for public housing.  The next mayor must use surplus revenue from Battery Park City to construct and rehabilitate public housing and other affordable housing.

The Community Service Society is sponsoring a mayoral candidate forum on Saturday, April 20th, that will focus entirely on NYCHA and the future of public housing in New York City.  It will be moderated by Michael Powell of The New York Times.  It is free to the public, but space is limited so we ask that you to register online or call 212-614-5365.

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