Mayoral Hopefuls Asked: How to Pay for Public Housing?

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Scenes from NYCHA developments around the city. Clockwise from top left: Red Hook, Wagner, Bushwick, Castle Hill, Ravenswood, Kingsborough.

Photo by: Jarrett Murphy

Scenes from NYCHA developments around the city. Clockwise from top left: Red Hook, Wagner, Bushwick, Castle Hill, Ravenswood, Kingsborough.

In a lively weekend forum on the future of NYCHA where five Democratic mayoral candidates faced off in front of a crowd of about 300, moderator and New York Times columnist Michael Powell did his best to ensure that the candidates got their say, despite a few attempts by the enthusiastic crowd to the contrary. He also tried his best to insist that the candidates ground their promises in fiscal realities.

Despite agreement among the candidates that NYCHA is in crisis and needs management reform, plans for generating new revenue were spotty.

NYCHA, the nation’s oldest and largest public housing authority, houses more than 400,000 people in 2,600 buildings on 334 public housing sites around the city and administers the Section 8 program that pays rent for another 220,000 New Yorkers. It faces a yearly deficit of about $40 million in operating costs, as well as a $6.6 billion deficit in capital needs, such as repairs to roofs, elevators, heating and grounds.

Former Comptroller Bill Thompson used his disgust for the Bloomberg administration’s “infill” project—the plan to lease NYCHA land to private developers to build market-rate housing and some affordable units—to introduce an alternative method for generating revenue for NYCHA: building affordable housing for low- and moderate-income families on that land.

“Building affordable housing generates revenue. I’m generating housing that generates revenue that goes back into supporting NYCHA,” he said. It was unclear how buildings charging lower rent would generate as much money to support the cash-starved authority as mixed-income buildings would.

Thompson continued to use the language of “a tale of two cities” to describe the infill project, garnering applause from an audience that clearly opposes the idea. “I was in Douglas Houses,” he said, “and the folks there are terrified of losing their homes.”

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio also called the plan “a slippery slope,” and Comptroller John Liu went so far as to refer to it as “selling off NYCHA’s land.”

As for how to close NYCHA’s operating shortfalls without the infill deals, de Blasio spoke of “getting our fair share from Washington.” Liu had some specific recommendations for revenue sources, like renegotiating the Times Square Marriot’s sweetheart rent-to-own deal for the city property on which it is located. But he also wondered aloud, “How can it be that they [the Housing Authority] don’t have resources if they are paying $200 million a year for police and sanitation services?” referring to—and overstating by $100 million—the payments NYCHA makes to the city of New York for NYPD and DSNY services and payments in lieu of taxes.

Indeed, all the candidates were in agreement that on day one as mayor, they would put a stop to NYCHA’s payments to the city. Thompson argued that the current deal, which began when NYCHA’s own police force was merged with the NYPD in the 1990s, was a ploy hatched by then-Mayor Giuliani at a time in which NYCHA was awash in federal funding. “It was a way to get money from the federal government to the city,” he said. “That money must stay with the people.”

Speaker Christine Quinn (who who had to fight to be heard on numerous occasions) argued that NYCHA residents already pay taxes, which should include police services and sanitation. She also mentioned going “aggressively to Washington to get the money it owes,” as well as not wasting any money through mismanagement.

All the candidates echoed concerns about “money left on the table”, referring to the $1 billion in unspent capital funds that a Daily News investigation of NYCHA exposed last year. The candidates also mentioned the repairs backlog. Thompson and Liu suggested hiring NYCHA residents to do the repair work, and Quinn said that, if elected, she’d introduce an Internet system for tracking repairs to increase transparency and efficiency. All candidates agreed that NYCHA’s centralized computer system for tracking repairs requests had failed, with De Blasio specifying that a computer cannot distinguish between levels of need. (NYCHA contends that since August, 113,000 of the 400,000 backlogged repair orders had been addressed.)

The candidates agreed as well on the need to restructure NYCHA’s management. Thompson was the most specific: “We need to get rid of the current board structure, and put an 11-member board in place, five of whom would be residents. We need to stop paying salaries to members, and let them have expertise in housing and management. Let them bring something to the table.”

The real differences between the candidates emerged only when the issue of stop, question and frisk was raised.

The crowd cheered Liu wildly when he said he would put an end to the practice, and booed de Blasio when he said his administration would distinguish between discriminatory and non-discriminatory stops.

Quinn spoke passionately to the lack of evidence that the policing strategy is making the city safer. On the contrary, “it is clear that it is not constitutional and that it is ripping communities and the police apart. It is making it harder for us to keep our city safe.” But she said she would keep Ray Kelly as police commissioner, whereupon Powell had to silence the crowd.

Former Brooklyn Councilman Sal Albanese suggested hiring 300 officers for NYCHA, who would establish a rapport with individual developments, cultivating the trust that he says was lost to “stop-and-frisk.”

Many NYCHA residents were in the audience, as well as representatives of organizations like Good Old Lower East Side, the Legal Aid Society, Community Voices Heard, Families United for Racial and Economic Equality and Teamsters Local 237, which represents many NYCHA workers.

The forum was sponsored by the Community Service Society (which owns City Limits). CSS just released a report examining the range of housing challenges facing the next mayor.

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