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

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

Earlier this month 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 outline her plans for preserving 334 developments against a rising tide of diminished revenues and unfunded capital needs.

When she took over as New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) Chair and CEO, Shola Olatoye inherited a housing system that was once a national model. But today NYCHA – with a resident population that is 45 percent Latino -- 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From 2002 to 2011, more than $1 billion in city and state maintenance and capital funds were withdrawn from NYCHA.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 ($99 million currently), rapid deterioration of living conditions, and enormous capital needs (estimated at $10 to 17 billion).

Ms. Olatoye was refreshingly candid about the challenges facing NYCHA: “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.”

Engaging the stakeholders of public housing on planning for the future, as Ms. Olatoye did at the forum,  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.

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?

In her remarks at the forum Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez (D-NY, 7th District), senior member of the House Sub-committee on Housing and Community Opportunity, told resident leaders not to expect any additional help from Washington.  “New members of Congress only want to cut, cut, cut. To save public housing will require activism. We need an army of residents to go to Washington, and Albany too, to fight for public housing. We are all in this together,” she said.

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 understands explicitly the consequences if NYCHA’s fiscal and physical problem go unaddressed. But getting Albany’s attention will require NYCHA stakeholders to be fully engaged 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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