With Trump as President, Public Housing’s Future is on the Line

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

What will happen to public housing under soon-to-be President Donald Trump? The answer to this question could have consequences for every single one of the more than half million New Yorkers -- most of them low-income blacks and Latinos – living in 328 public housing developments across the five boroughs, not to mention the hundreds of thousands whose rents are subsidized by Section 8 vouchers.

From appearances and past deeds, a Trump administration is likely to pay scant attention to the needs of the nation’s public housing residents, who in many places including New York City face an infrastructural crisis marked by a steady decline in living conditions that has accelerated in the last decade. Here at home, decades of government disinvestment and neglect have devastated public housing, leaving residents to cope daily with leaking roofs, stalled and broken elevators, fragile plumbing, crumbling facades and toxic mold. The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) could well use some help meeting a $17 billion backlog in major improvements to its aging buildings.

Since tax cuts are high on the Trump agenda, we can expect a tighter federal budget which will mean (at best) status quo funding for Section 8 vouchers, which help low-income families afford housing by subsidizing rents in privately-owned rentals. Additional funding for this program is essential if it is to meet the need for rental assistance –  particularly in high-rent cities like New York – in large part because rents are going up while incomes remain stagnant.

Despite famously pledging to “rebuild the inner cities” if elected, it is unlikely that Trump will actually follow through. After all, this is a guy who made his name building luxury residential properties, hotels and golf courses that cater to the wealthy, without making a mark in affordable housing.  

Yet some public housing advocates see a glimmer of hope. They cite Trump’s interest in a national infrastructure investment initiative to accelerate the economy and generate jobs. If Trump is serious at all about “inner city” issues, then public housing infrastructure must be included in any national initiative.

But -- given his track record -- it’s hard to imagine Trump using his executive powers to address housing inequities. Back in 1973, the U.S. Justice Department sued the Trump family real estate firm for violating the Fair Housing Act by using racially discriminatory rental practices designed to keep blacks out of rental buildings in Brooklyn and Queens. This lawsuit – among the biggest of its kind at the time – ended in a consent decree prohibiting Trump and his father from engaging in discriminatory rental and real estate sales practices.  In the decades since then, Trump has done little to change the perception that he holds poor blacks and Latinos in low regard.

Even his choice of Dr. Ben Carson to be U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban (HUD) Development looks to be a smoke screen. The retired neurosurgeon, who grew up in Detroit and was a 2016 Republican Presidential candidate, has no experience in housing or leading a large government agency. That may explain why he was chosen in the first place; gutting HUD will sure be a lot easier with an inexperienced figurehead in charge.  To his credit, Carson himself expressed reservations about taking the job due to his obvious lack of qualifications.

All of the concerns and uncertainties surrounding the new administration add new pressure on stakeholders in New York’s public housing system to do more to preserve this critical source of affordable housing for the city’s poorest residents.

But this is no time to rely on help from Washington. Rather, we need a dramatic change in government priorities here in New York – one that favors restoring public housing rather than marginalizing it while exploiting its land assets.

Both Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio have called for multi-billion dollar affordable housing initiatives in the private sector. The governor’s affordable housing initiative commits $5 billion over five years to the effort. Mayor de Blasio’s ambitious Housing New York Plan -- with a goal of 200,000 affordable housing units over ten years, 80,000 to be constructed and 120,000 to be preserved -- commits $8 billion in city capital funds.

However, since 2014 the City and State’s collective capital commitment to preserving existing public housing for its hundreds of thousands of residents here in New York City totals $500 million (mostly from the City). Even without federal help – which does not appear forthcoming – the City and State must be prepared to invest in the level and scale of infrastructure improvements needed to shore up New York City’s public housing. Without this commitment, public housing could become extinct in our lifetime. That would have a devastating impact on poor working families and lead to a massive crisis for the city in terms of increasing homelessness and inequality. 

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