To Save Public Housing, Residents Must Have Some Skin in the Game

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

Last Saturday about 100 resident leaders from public housing developments across the city, along with 50 advocates and concerned elected officials, gathered at a Manhattan public housing forum to hear the head of the city’s housing authority take questions about the financially-strapped agency and outline her plans for preserving 334 developments against a rising tide of diminished revenues and unfunded capital needs.

The task for the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) Chair and CEO, Shola Olatoye, is a daunting one.  She has inherited a housing authority that was once a national model, but today is struggling to provide minimally-decent housing to its residents due to an aging infrastructure, deferred maintenance, inadequate federal funding, and more than a decade of defunding by the city and state.

While most of the blame for NYCHA’s hard times can be directly linked to chronic federal starvation funding over the years, the city and state have played a substantial role in its decline. As such, both the city and state must recognize their responsibility to help restore this critically-needed housing resource.

From 2002 to 2011, more than $1 billion in city and state maintenance and capital funds were withdrawn from NYCHA. The erosion of government support at every level resulted in annual operating deficits and rapid deterioration of living conditions for residents. Today, NYCHA is facing an operating deficit of $99 million, on top of a backlog of more than $10 billion in needed major capital improvements to its infrastructure.

At Saturday’s forum, which was co-sponsored by the Community Service Society, the Legal Aid Society, NYC Alliance to Preserve Public Housing and Urban Justice Center, Ms. Olatoye was refreshingly candid about the challenges facing NYCHA. In addition to better serving residents and putting in place accountability mechanisms that are commonplace with private landlords, she told the audience that NYCHA must also get its fiscal house in order: “We are bleeding cash and short on revenues. So we are looking at opportunities and models to ensure long-term stability and sustainability of the system where we are not displacing residents, but preserving the larger NYCHA portfolio,” she said.

Engaging the stakeholders of public housing on planning for the future, as Ms. Olatoye did on Saturday, is crucial to the de Blasio Administration’s efforts to rebuild trust with residents. Fear and suspicion on the part of residents that financial pressures on NYCHA will lead to the privatization of public housing properties are real.  Not too long ago we had a mayor who wanted to use NYCHA open space for private development purposes to build mostly high-end housing at market rents. The plan stirred opposition from resident and community leaders, elected officials, and advocates because of the speed and secrecy with which NYCHA was moving forward on the proposal.

To be sure, some leveraging of NYCHA’s assets to generate revenue to support operating and capital needs may be necessary. But the real question is this: as NYCHA moves forward with initiatives to tap into new capital and restore its housing – as it is doing with the preliminary sale in December of 900 Section 8 apartments to private developers – what are NYCHA residents prepared to do to protect their homes?

According to Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez (D-NY, 7th District), who also addressed the forum, with public housing at risk of losing needed Washington support now is the time for residents to make their voices heard in Albany and at City Hall. The senior member of the House Sub-committee on Housing and Community Opportunity urged resident leaders to become more active in the fight to save public housing.

Taking the fight to Albany is particularly important now. This year the governor and state lawmakers will have $5 billion in bank settlement funds to spend. Getting some of that money for capital improvements for NYCHA is imperative. The City Council delegation, and particularly members of the Assembly with public housing developments in their district, must push for substantial funding for NYCHA.

As a former HUD Secretary, Gov. Cuomo has a lot of experience with public housing and certainly understands the need to address NYCHA’s fiscal problems. To ensure that happens, NYCHA stakeholders must be visible and active so that their interests are not ignored when it comes down to the horse-trading that goes on in Albany.

Back at City Hall, the Mayor and NYCHA Chair must build on the reforms that have already been achieved. Earlier this year, the Mayor eliminated $75 million in NYCHA payments to the NYPD for police services so those funds could go to needed maintenance and repairs. Another $32 million in PILOT property tax payments NYCHA sends to the city should also be terminated. If the Governor and the Mayor sign an agreement, over the next 10 years $400 million in Battery Park City excess revenues could be dedicated to badly needed NYCHA infrastructure improvements.

Restoring NYCHA as a financially-solvent and viable housing system for the city’s low-income and working poor represents one of the single best opportunities for the de Blasio administration to make good on the Mayor’s pledge to create a more equitable city. But the Mayor can’t do it alone; NYCHA residents must have some skin in the game.

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