Cityview: Challenging the Authority

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It is inevitable that the mayor’s new chairperson will want to change things, and he or she will have a lot of opportunity to do so. Under the new law, the federal government turns over unprecedented powers to local housing authorities. But along with the new flexibility comes federal budget limits that will sorely test the agency.

NYCHA will be under growing pressure to make up the shortfall by raising rents and/or widening the income range of residents by providing fewer units for the very poor. The agency will also have the authority to sell, convert or demolish existing public housing, or use its funds to support private development and leasing. Taken together, these options could very well leave even fewer housing units available for the very poor, pushing some families into homelessness.

Local housing authorities are increasingly being asked to come to grips with terms like “entrepreneurial” and “asset management,” but they cannot be viewed primarily as a business–people’s lives and the city’s affordable housing programs are profoundly affected by their actions.

The very title of the federal law shows Congress’ unwillingness to even use the word “public” in dealing with public housing, and the emphasis on responsibility implies that in the past public housing residents haven’t been responsible members of the community. This bias echoes the personal responsibility theme in the recent welfare reform law where reducing welfare rolls–not creating jobs–has been the primary outcome.

The theme of responsibility goes beyond the law’s title. Unless they’re in school or participating in a recognized job training or work-related program, all unemployed able-bodied adults living in public housing are now required to contribute eight hours a month to “voluntary” community services.

NYCHA is obliged under the law to evict residents who fail to meet this requirement. Let’s see the authority show some responsibility of its own by challenging the provision. There is no parallel requirement of forced labor in any other federal housing policy, including mortgages subsidized through income-tax deductions.

With these changes on the horizon, it’s imperative that there be a structure for direct resident involvement–beyond the usual public hearings–in decisions affecting tenants’ lives and homes.

NYCHA has a recent history of frustrating resident participation and withholding vital information. As a new leader takes over, the agency should move toward basic institutional changes in how it relates to its residents and the wider community. At the same time, the agency must perform a balancing act by involving residents in its plans and decisions while continuing to maintain the quality of its housing and its financial position.

A good start would be forming a citywide Resident Advisory Board. Thanks to lobbying by the New York City Public Housing Resident Alliance, the new law has kept intact current federal Department of Housing and Urban Development regulations granting residents the right to organize development by development. These elected resident associations are supposed to be the building blocks for forming a citywide advisory board to plan and work with NYCHA on policy issues.

New York’s public housing system has been a model for the nation. If this success is to continue, NYCHA’s 60-year mission and role as the primary source of decent affordable housing for the city’s poor must be maintained. The fate of NYCHA’s tenants–a population about the size of San Francisco’s–is connected to every resident of this city, rich or poor. If new, restrictive policies close NYCHA’s doors to the very poorest New Yorkers, all of us will feel the effects.

David R. Jones is president of the Community Service Society of New York, a nonprofit research, advocacy and social service organization. Research for this article was provided by Victor Bach, CSS director of housing policy and and research.