Chapter 1: Public Housing's Last Stand

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Public housing crowds Manhattan's Lower East Side on what is now prime real estate.

Photo by: Jarrett Murphy

Public housing crowds Manhattan's Lower East Side on what is now prime real estate.

At about 3 p.m. on Election Day, East Harlem grew dreary. The overcast sky turned a darker shade of gray. It was not the cheery omen everyone was looking for. Henry Serrano stubbed out his cigarette, opened the door from the third-floor fire escape and went back inside his East 106th Street office. The radio was buzzing with the non-news of six hours until poll-closing. Serrano had just sent a team of canvassers to Queens for a final push to persuade residents of the New York City Housing Authority's Astoria and Queensbridge houses to vote. Outside, at the public schools and churches that served as polling places, today's Harlem mingled—20-something white hipsters waited next to elderly black ladies, newcomers stood near old-timers. Change was in the air, but to Serrano and others it didn't all look good. "Can you imagine East Harlem without public housing?" Serrano asked at one point. "It'd all be bulldozed. Gentrified. I mean, we're the castle, the fortress." The barricade? "Yes, the barricade."

Castle, fortress, barricade, city in itself. Across New York, from the Charles W. Barry complex in Staten Island to the Coney Island Houses to the Marble Hill Houses in the Bronx, public housing in New York is officially home to more than 403,500 people—about as big as Miami. It might be even larger: By some estimates as many as 100,000 unofficial residents are doubled up in housing authority apartments. NYCHA oversees an empire of 343 developments containing 2,636 buildings. It is the city's biggest landlord.

New York City is where public housing started. It is where most public housing was built. And today, it is where the concept of public housing in America is making its last stand.

In the past 13 years, some 200,000 units of public housing have disappeared across the United States. The 1.2 million units that remain have eluded the wrecking ball only to suffer starvation: Since 2001, the federal government has consistently and severely choked off public housing's funds. This year, NYCHA is receiving 17 percent less than what federal funding formulas indicate Washington owes the authority. Federal capital funding has also stagnated at a time when aging public housing needs major repairs. And NYCHA has in recent years also absorbed severe cuts made by Albany and City Hall while continuing to pay the city for police protection and garbage collection.

The resulting nine-digit deficits over the past several years have forced NYCHA to dip into its reserves—a practice that puts the authority at risk of losing federal aid. NYCHA has also raised rents, hiked fees, sold land, slashed its workforce and closed the community centers that keep kids of f the street.

Those cuts have narrowed the gap. But it's still gaping. So NYCHA is bringing in more tenants with higher incomes and diverting funding from private-market affordable housing to subsidize its own operations. Some observers and policymakers even want the housing authority to sell—yes, sell—some of its properties located in hot-market neighborhoods and use the proceeds to subsidize the rest of the portfolio.

Many in New York doubt it will come to that; they're counting on the Obama administration to restore full funding to public housing. That's part of the reason that Henry Serrano, an organizer with the low-income-advocacy group Community Voices Heard, was sending out door knockers to the projects on Election Day—to help public housing's advocates pack on political weight so they can sway decision makers in City Hall, Albany and Washington. But in a time of economic crisis and tight budgets, a lot of people want a lot of things from the mayor, the governor and the new president. And a lot of causes have more friends than public housing does. Evidence of this came in September when the New York Times reported on NYCHA's budget cutting. Readers weighed in online.

"Housing projects are the physical embodiment of antipoverty programs that institutionalize poverty," wrote a reader using the screen name Russell Warshay.

Jim agreed: "Public housing should be torn down and replaced with mixed income housing."

So did Sue Kaufman: "These projects have approximately 100 percent teen pregnancy rates and somewhere around zero percent high school graduation. They are the most ingenius device ever concieved of for enlarging the welfare system and institutionalizing perpetual underachievement and anti social behavior among its residents. [sic]"

"Public housing is refuse inside a major urban area," offered Sorry Sam. "Even if the crime is minimal and most of the residents are disabled/senior, public housing is miserable place to visit, let alone live. The cigarette smoke alone will kill you in a week. The generationally-poor have their own culture, and public housing is a breeding pot for it."

These claims are almost entirely wrong. But in the absence of a more complete picture of what public housing is and how it got that way, notions like these have rationalized a 50-year crusade to destroy the housing that New York City is now fighting to save.