Office of the Governor

Gov. Cuomo visiting Forest Houses in the Bronx on March 22.

During a sunny Saint Patrick’s Day weekend, reporters gathered anxiously outside of the monolithic Taft Houses in East Harlem waiting for the day’s main attraction: Governor Andrew Cuomo. When he finally arrived, in grand fashion with a posse of local politicians behind him, reporters were treated to an exclusive tour of some of the decaying apartments in the enormous complex. The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) has been in a state of crisis over the past year, dealing with a massive budget deficit of $286.6 million as well as being rocked by a lead-paint scandal that saw the firing of top officials. Responding to the crisis, Cuomo has positioned himself as NYCHA’s savior-in-chief.

During the tour with reporters, the governor examined the plethora of problems facing many of the nearly 500,000 residents who depend on public housing in an ever more unaffordable city. From peeling paint to water leaks, vermin infestation to broken appliances, the governor was given a firsthand look at the inhuman conditions many NYCHA residents are forced to endure.

“There is no one who will see what I saw and allow it to continue”, the governor said. Later he said that the state of the disrepairs was utterly “disgusting”.

After the tour Cuomo gave an impassioned speech and held a press conference with residents who were wearing orange hats reading in bold print “TENANTS UNITED”. In his speech Cuomo vowed to act by pledging an additional $250 million on top of the $300 million he already promised to invest in New York’s public housing stock. He made sure to remind reporters, that even though “the state has no financial responsibility” to fund NYCHA, he was going to fight to secure the funds anyway.

Refusing to take any responsibility for the crisis, Cuomo blasted the city and NYCHA for its mismanagement of the crisis. “I am tired of politicians defending the bureaucracy of NYCHA rather than protecting the interest of the tenants!” Cuomo exclaimed.

He also challenged President Trump to put his money where his mouth is. “If he really wants to make America great again, he should show the people more money,” Cuomo said, noting later: “At one time, NYCHA was the model of public housing, and now conditions are at the worst they’ve ever been.”

Cuomo’s allusions to the heyday of public housing were ironic given the significant role Cuomo played during his time as federal housing secretary in the dismantling of public housing across the country.

The man from HOPE VI

The governor failed to mention that as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Cuomo oversaw the destruction of public housing in cities such as Chicago, Baltimore and Philadelphia. During the Clinton Administration, Cuomo served as HUD’s Assistant Secretary for Community Planning and Development from 1993 to 1997 and then as HUD Secretary from 1997 through the end of Clinton’s second term in early 2001.

During Cuomo’s tenure, HUD underwent major policy shifts in accordance with the rise of the post-Cold War national neoliberal agenda, which saw a rapid decline in union membership, cuts to social safety nets, deregulation of the financial sector and the privatization of the public sector. Welfare reform was the highest-profile social policy to reflect this approach. But at HUD, Clinton’s “third way” ideology manifested itself in the implementation of a program first launched by President George H.W. Bush called Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere or better known as HOPE VI.

HOPE VI, first implemented in phases starting in 1992, was the federal program that incentivized cities with grants that would subsidize the construction of mixed-income developments in place of their decaying public housing projects. The policy became law in 1998 with the passage of (and Clinton’s signature on) the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act, leading to the accelerated demolition of public housing.

It was not the first time urban America saw large waves of displacement because of federal policy. Back in the 1960’s the federal government implemented controversial “urban renewal” policies that reshaped the landscape of American cities. Author James Baldwin eloquently renamed the effort “Negro removal.” In some cases, the troubled high-rise public housing of the 1980s and 1990s was built on the land made vacant by, and amid the social fabric rent by, urban renewal.

HOPE VI was marketed as the best way to undue the mistakes made by previous HUD policies, like constructing public housing in segregated neighborhoods, detached from the normal streetscape. But in establishing the rationale for HOPE VI, its supporters implied that the problems of public housing had nothing to do with systematic underfunding, divestment, mismanagement and neglect, nor the industrial decline of urban America.

Instead, much of the blame fell on the design of the buildings and their role in concentrating poverty. City planer Oscar Newman argued in his 1976 book “Design Guidelines for Creating Defensible Space” that the design of high-rise public housing was fundamentally flawed because it failed to nourish its residents’ supposed natural inclinations towards ownership. He believed that the alienating architecture of the buildings created a breeding ground for crime.

The solution was to radically redesign public housing with an emphasis on low-density housing and more private open space. This would foster a sense of ownership in the residents, thus creating a safer and cleaner environment.

According to the National Low-Income Housing Collation, between the mid 1990’s and 2010 over 200,000 public housing units were lost because of HOPE VI with only 50,000 low-income units being replaced. Because the federal government did not require that cities replace the units that were lost with the same amount of units in the new housing complexes, cities issued Section 8 vouchers to many of the displaced residents to seek housing in the private market.

The bulk of the total number of public housing that was demolished under HOPE VI occurred under Cuomo’s watch. According to HUD records, from 1997-2000 Cuomo’s HUD approved 120 demolition grants encompassing at least 50,000 public housing units across the country.

Chicago saw the largest impact. It was by far the largest city to be awarded substantial HOPE VI grants. Nearly all its public housing was demolished: 51 high-rise complexes containing 16,000 public-housing units housing upwards of 60,000 people. This housing was replaced with 25,000 units of mixed-income scattered-site housing in which only 2,100 former public-housing residents currently reside.

Chicago’s public housing contained some of the most notorious public-housing complexes in the country—places like Cabrini Green and the Robert Taylor Homes. Stories of gangs controlling entire housing blocks freely circulated in the press. It was true that gang violence was an ugly reality in Chicago’s projects, but the media sensationalized it, further stigmatizing public housing. The 1992 horror movie classic “Candyman” was set in Cabrini Green, further cementing in the minds of Americans that public housing was a nightmarish place to live.

And indeed, Chicago’s public housing was in dire straits. Most of the high-rise projects were poorly built and maintained. Throughout the 1960’s and 70’s Chicago followed an official segregation policy that led buildings like Cabrini Green to be populated exclusively by Black tenants. Funds for maintenance and renovations were routinely withheld by the city under the leadership of long-time mayor and staunch anti-integrationist, Richard J. Daley. Because of the increasing media scrutiny of the worsening housing conditions, in 1995 HUD took control of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), citing the city’s systematic mismanagement.

In Chicago and elsewhere, instead of advocating re-investment in and modernizing the nation’s public housing stock or calling for policies that would reverse the systematic underfunding of public housing, Cuomo was an avid cheerleader in its destruction by endorsing privately run mixed income developments. In 1999 Cuomo awarded a $35 million HOPE VI grant to Birmingham, Alabama to demolish the deteriorating Metropolitan Garden Houses, replacing it with mixed-income housing. Metropolitan Gardens had 910 units of vital low-income housing. Its replacement didn’t even attempt to replace the housing that was lost. Only a mere 340 units were reserved as public housing. The other 489 apartment units were rented out at market rate.

“We are transforming public housing projects with problems into new mixed-income communities with promise,” Cuomo said during his 1999 Birmingham speech. “We are making public housing a launching pad to opportunity, jobs and self-sufficiency—instead of a warehouse trapping people in poverty and long-term dependence.”

In the same year he also awarded Baltimore a $21.3 million HOPE VI grant. The grant was used towards the demolition of the Broadway Houses public housing development. In the process, 429 low income units were lost. In its place the new development has only provided 84 units of low income housing.

By 2000 HUD had demolished 85 individual Chicago project buildings. Then in 2000 Chicago’s Mayor Richard M. Daley, son of former mayor Richard J. Daley, regained control of the CHA and implemented the Plan for Transformation, a $1.5 billion, 10-year program that would level the city’s remaining housing projects. Daley’s new fast-track program was marketed as being beneficial for the mostly Black residents with promises of racial integration, deconcentrating poverty and fostering a middle-class life style. Its stated goal was to “build and strengthen communities by integrating public housing and its leaseholders into the larger social, economic, and physical fabric of Chicago.”

If it was Daley who’s responsible for radically reshaping Chicago’s public-housing landscape, it was Cuomo who enthusiastically signed the checks. Cuomo was the one who awarded Chicago the $1.5 billon.

“We are going to take down the failed high-rises and stop putting bandages on bullet wounds,” Cuomo said after he singed the grant. “We aren’t going to invest in high-rises anymore, and we’re going to replace those that are there with something that works.” He even went so far as to say that the Plan for Transformation was “one of the highlights of his administration”

Questionable theories

Cuomo’s comments that day echoed Newman’s work, which substantially influenced the formation and ideology of HOPE VI. Much of the housing that was built conformed to Newman’s theory. At face value Newman’s principles sound pleasant enough. Who would argue against a safer and cleaner public housing environment? “I’m not sure that urbanists or architectural historians have absorbed how empirically weak Newman’s theories were” says Greg Umbach, associate history professor at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “To an extent many of [his theories]—but certainly not all—have been discredited since.”

Other academics such as William Julius Wilson and Douglas S. Massey also influenced HOPE VI by providing research backing up the theory of concentrated poverty. In a 2000 speech during a HOPE VI conference in Atlanta, Georgia, Cuomo endorsed the theory. “Whenever we concentrated too many poor people in one place we got into trouble. And you know what, we should have gotten in trouble.” He said. “Because it was either a tremendous mistake of design and policy, or it was by design and policy.”

However, some academics have called concentrated poverty a myth that hurts the poor because it ignores the underlining socio-economic issues that are at the root of poverty. “We have to be savvy about the political uses of the theory of concentrated poverty, which is invoked wherever the poor occupy valuable real estate that is coveted by developers,” says Stephen Steinberg, a distinguished professor at Queens College, “and which is part of the neoliberal agenda of reclaiming urban space that earlier was relinquished to the nation’s racial and class pariahs”.

In truth, HOPE VI did have some successes. Individual living situations did remarkably improve for the few who were lucky enough to receive housing in the newly built complexes. The overall quality life in the new developments also improved, with HUD sponsored surveys reporting 78 to 30 percent decrease in quality-of-life complaints. For those who received Section 8 vouchers, the data is mixed on whether their lives significantly improved or not.

It’s safe to say that HOPE VI certainly failed to address the systematic nature of poverty. “The private-public-nonprofit collaboration and community revitalization model encouraged by HOPE VI only addressed some symptoms of poverty, such as crime, while structural economic and social inequalities remained intact.” Julia Conte and Janet Li said in their paper Neoliberal Urban Revitalization in Chicago. “Some HOPE VI residents experienced a slight income increase in the aftermath of this ‘transformation,’ yet most remain unemployed and mired in poverty.”

To be fair, the negative or disappointing outcomes of HOPE VI can’t entirely be laid at the governor’s feet. After all, HOPE VI existed before and after the Cuomo’s tenure at HUD. The program was created during a time when the federal government was no longer committed to investing in public-housing. Capital funding was annually slashed by Congress in favor of the HOPE VI program. And cities voluntarily applied to participate in the program through a competitive application process.

New York City, for example, barely participated in the program. It only applied for three HOPE VI grants, leaving most of its public housing in tack. But as HOPE VI eradicated public housing in other cities, New York grew increasingly isolated politically–as ally cities in the fight to preserve public housing funding disappeared one after another.

Cuomo’s comments as secretary indicate his endorsement (at least then) not of efforts to salvage public housing and manage it better—the thrust of his current campaign to seize control of NYCHA—but rather of ending public housing, replacing it with new units that overwhelmingly house more affluent people, and dispatching many of the former public-housing residents to rent private apartments with Section 8 vouchers.

In recent weeks, Cuomo has consistently nodded to the federal role in funding public housing, a role he once oversaw. But he has focused overwhelmingly on local operational problems. The diagnosis this time, unlike in the HOPE VI cities, is not that public housing is the problem. Rather, it’s that public management is. “We need a real private company that’s going to come in and get the work done and turn the heat on and get the lead out and get the mold out and get it done in real time because we’re talking about brothers and sisters who have been living in misery for too long,” Cuomo said at the Mt. Neboh Baptist Church in Harlem on March 25. “And it stops and it stops now.”