In the 1950s, when many American cities located poorly-built high-rise housing projects in isolated areas, the New York City Housing Authority constructed solid buildings reasonably close to mass transit. When crime and mismanagement in the 1970s led some housing agencies to tear down their projects, New York's housing developments took their licks but kept standing. And amid a nationwide wave of demolition and privatization of public housing in the 1990s and this decade, public housing in New York has survived.
With 400,000 people living in 343 developments—most built by the federal government but some constructed by the state and city—the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) is the largest and oldest public housing system in the country. And, as Last Stand: The Fight to Save NYC's Public Housing reports, it could be where public housing faces its fateful moment. NYCHA is in grips of a full-fledged fiscal crisis at a time of ebbing political support for traditional public housing.
The problems began in 1998, when New York state cut subsidies for the public housing it had built. In 2004, the city of New York eliminated operating funds for the 8,000 units of public housing for which it was responsible. But the biggest challenge to NYCHA has been the federal government's year-after-year underfunding of NYCHA's operating expenses and capital needs. “I think there's been a policy of starvation at all three levels of government,” says Victor Bach, a housing analyst at the Community Service Society.
Meanwhile, costs for utilities and employee benefits have soared. The result: deficits in excess of $100 million a year, which NYCHA must fund by dipping into its reserves—a practice that could soon put NYCHA at odds with federal regulations.
The federal abandonment of public housing has been spurred by a widely accepted notion that public housing was a failure—a notion that, while true in many cases around the country, doesn’t reflect the full experience and complicated history of public housing in America. From the outset, public housing was beset by ideological opposition, stained by poor local management and hampered by the idealism of some of its proponents. Still, most public housing did not fail.
But the high-profile disasters at some projects—like Cabrini-Green in Chicago or Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis—and the popular belief that the dense concentration of poor people was responsible for most (if not all) of the problems at housing developments, spurred a federal push to revamp public housing in many cities. That meant tearing down projects, replacing them with mixed-income developments and dispersing many of the former residents into the private market armed with Section 8 vouchers, a government subsidy that bridges the gap between what low-income people can afford and what it costs to rent private apartments.
NYCHA'S trajectory has been different. The authority always strived to maintain a mix of incomes at its developments, for many years employing eligibility requirements that effectively blocked many of the most poor. That socioeconomic balance, coupled with sound management, helped NYCHA survive better than any other authority in the country. Today, it provides apartments to new tenants making up to 80 percent of area median income (for a family of four, that's an income of $61,450 a year). Once tenants are in place, they can make more than that. Rents are set at 30 percent of a tenant's income up to a maximum; the family of four making $61,450 a year would pay $820 for a two-bedroom apartment and $1,025 for a three-bedroom, while families with lower incomes pay less. It's a great deal at a time when more and more New Yorkers are spending as much as half their income on rent.
Despite avoiding the woes that plagued public housing elsewhere, NYCHA hasn't been so lucky as to escape the dollars-and-cents reality of successive funding cuts. A raft of cost-cutting measures including layoffs, service cuts, land sales—even the landmark and controversial plan to use Section 8 vouchers to fund public housing—have narrowed but not closed the massive budget gap.
NYCHA may have made its own job harder by mismanaging its capital plan, a crucial element of its hopes for survival. As City Limits reported last month, an initiative to partly privatize the authority's capital management has been plagued by cost overruns and leadership lapses. Rising construction prices and the use of more union labor, which earns higher (and, the unions argue, fairer) wages, have also raised costs. Altogether, it means that that NYCHA might be able to complete only 25 percent of the roof, brick, electric, interior and other repairs that it promised.
So the authority has to consider even more drastic steps to make ends meet. NYCHA consistently denies it would consider selling any of its projects (some of which are in areas with high development potential), but that is exactly what a chorus of voices on the right want it to do—with some cheering “good riddance,” and gentler voices arguing that only a smaller NYCHA can survive. “Ultimately, it's too late for public housing. Most public housing is going to come down,” says the Manhattan Institute's Julia Vitullo-Martin, one vocal proponent of selling off part of NYCHA to save the rest. “You've just got to face facts on these things. That's the way it is.”
Even if NYCHA avoids that fate, public housing is sure to change in other ways as NYCHA's admissions preferences—which favor people with moderate incomes over the very poor—alter the social makeup of the projects.
As a candidate, President Obama vowed to restore the full federal operating subsidy for public housing. And NYCHA has also lobbied for the new stimulus bill to include new capital funding for rebuilding public housing— in New York City alone, dozens of buildings are more than 50 years old, and there are $6 billion in backlogged repairs. The arrival of former city housing commissioner Shaun Donovan at the helm of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees public housing, signals that New York's needs should at least receive a friendly hearing.
But hopes for help from Washington are constrained by a self-reinforcing political reality: As the wrecking ball knocked down projects in Chicago, Atlanta, New Orleans and elsewhere in recent decades, the number of constituents for public housing shrank. “New York City is becoming more and more different from every city in the country,” says NYCHA General Manager Doug Apple. “That makes it really more challenging in Washington because every other city in this country has actually demolished public housing, eliminated public housing and changed public housing.”