Adi Talwar

A New York City Housing Authority building in the Ingersoll Housing complex near Downtown Brooklyn.

On Tuesday, July 28th, the Chair and CEO of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) Greg Russ introduced a new “preservation strategy” for the city’s public housing. As City Limits reporter Sadef Ali Kully outlined recently, this strategy involves creating a new public entity called The Public Preservation Trust. This Public Trust will pursue an alternative HUD subsidy, tenant protection vouchers, which will be leveraged to create financing streams to repair the remaining 110,000 units that are not pegged for the federal Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program. 

In clarifying this strategy, NYCHA and its CEO use the framing “public-to-public” transfer, and emphasize that this is not a privatization plan. NYCHA will maintain ownership of the land and buildings and only transfer them to the Public Trust through a long-term ground lease. NYCHA will then be hired by the Trust to manage the properties. 

This is the latest strategy to be proposed, following NextGeneration NYCHA and NYCHA 2.0. Both of these previous plans transfer control over parts of NYCHA campuses to private developers, whether parking lots and open space or buildings and units. This has been a main point of critique from tenants and grassroots community groups, including the Justice For All Coalition, of which I am a member. My guess is that the emphasis on “public” is intended to highlight how this strategy departs from the most controversial aspects of the previous two plans, and to quell concerns before they arise. 

However, my critique of the new plan is rooted in a commonality across these plans, and a trend in our city that undergirds a lot of community-based concerns and organizing efforts beyond public housing. In short, all of these plans are about the financialization of public housing. Said another way, these strategies work to bring public housing under the control of financial professionals, and market logics, processes, and practices.

We can see this in specific aspects of the plan. For example, the institutional structure of the Public Trust, or the new state-level “public” entity, is a public benefits corporation (PBC). While a PBC is supposed to be guided by a general social mission, it is also beholden to the staple goal of corporations, which is to create value for shareholders. To boot, the social goal is non-enforceable, whereas shareholders have institutional pathways through which they can take action if they feel their expectations aren’t being met. 

It is worth noting that we have watched this harmful tension play out with the actions of another notorious public benefits corporation, the NYCEDC. Just think about the dumpster fire that is Hudson Yards, or the way the social benefits that were supposed to accompany Atlantic Yards never materialized. It is also worth noting that NYCEDC’s current president and CEO is James Patchett, a former employee of Goldman Sachs, and that all but one former head appointed in this century is also from the world of banking. Who do we really think will be at the helm of this “public” trust?

For Russ’ plan, the PBC is necessary because it is what will allow NYCHA to tap into private funding sources for repairs, which is the main ambition of the plan and another critical step in the financialization of public housing. It’s the PBC, or the Public Trust, that will receive the alternative subsidy from HUD — the tenant protection vouchers. The vouchers will then be leveraged to take on billions of dollars in debt to make repairs to the buildings and units. While this may help drum up money for repairs, it also more-than-likely creates another problem for future generations. This is not a real solution, this is a transmutation and delay of a problem; this is a billions-of-dollars problem masquerading as a solution. 

The financialization of public housing is dangerous because of how it changes the functional meaning of what housing is. These buildings are homes and communities, and places where people make their lives, take a break from life and create it, care for their families, and more. But, as we heard repeatedly in Russ’ presentation, financialization schemas position public housing in New York City as an asset portfolio. Assets are vehicles for wealth accumulation; that is their dominant function and it usually trumps other use values. 

We can see this tension between asset and home playing out right now during COVID-19, where 25 percent of tenants are facing eviction—now suspended until after October 1st—because our governor won’t cancel the damn rent. Landlords’ right to profit off their asset is trumping tenants’ right to housing. We can also look at what happened to rent-stabilized housing after protections were weakened in the 1990s. The re-regulation of those units effectively converted them into assets, and tenants suffered greatly for it.

We can even see it in this plan already. Russ has stated that he is pursuing “obsolescence” to secure the tenant protection vouchers from HUD. This means that it is not in NYCHA’s best interest to address repair needs right now, which is directly at odds with tenants’ rights to safe and healthy and habitable housing, and is critical to realizing housing as a home.

Financialization as a strategy also relies on a very limited understanding of the problems plaguing residents living in public housing—merely the financials. However, through my work with the Justice For All Coalition I’ve heard from tenants directly about the widespread challenges they face.

Furthermore, this plan does nothing to address the larger historical context that explains who finds themselves living in public housing today. NYCHA tenants are predominantly Black and Brown. This is not a fluke, but a reality designed by the racist and classist history of our country, our city, and our world. The lack of care given to public housing residents today—which includes disinvestment, but also happens in other ways like mentioned above—is a continuation of this history. Any plan attempting to “rescue” NYCHA must account for and address this reality. 

This historical context also highlights the insidiousness of one of the ways Russ is justifying and celebrating this plan. This plan, he claims, will help stabilize the regional economy. NYCHA needs saving because of blatant neglect, and the ways our political and economic systems willfully fail to serve its residents. Why should the responsibility of economic recovery fall on these residents? 

Alternatively, we could generate funding for public housing by taxing the wealthy and ending tax abatements for developers. This would rightfully place the onus of economic recovery on those who have benefitted the most, and recoup public money for the public good more generally.

Like Russ’ plan, #TaxTheRich only answers part of the problem plaguing public housing and its residents. To address the other issues, we, the Justice For All Coalition, recommend resident management corporations (RMCs). RMCs are an available avenue through which public housing tenants can collectively take on full or partial management responsibilities of their developments. 

The idea for them grew out of the civil rights and welfare rights movements of the 1960s, and tenants’ frustrations about dilapidation and mismanagement (sound familiar?). Multiple RMCs emerged through the 1970s and 1980s, and in 1987, RMCs were legally codified into law as a governance option for public housing residents. In 1992, HUD did an extensive evaluation of 11 RMCs, comparing them to each other and to the housing authority and found that full-service RMCs, where residents took on the bulk of management responsibilities, were definitively superior managers.

These developments were better maintained, had robust social service programs, and created more employment opportunities for residents. Evictions and turnover were less frequent, and their operating expenses were lower. Tenants’ positive perceptions of their quality of life also reflected these changes. This evaluation suggests that RMCs are capable of addressing the multiple issues public housing residents face.

What I’ve laid out here are two diametrically-opposed pathways forward. This is a crossroads. The scale of Russ’ proposal means that pathway will end public housing as we know it by wrangling it under the harmful logics of financial capitalism, which we have seen ravage working-class communities and other forms of decommodified housing across the city. It will put a critical form of affordable housing and an important public institution in jeopardy, and it will perpetuate the longer historical inequalities that have undergirded the ongoing insecurity felt by Black and Brown and working-class residents. The alternative pathway maintains public housing, and greatly expands its capacity in providing for residents. 

Pursuing the latter pathway would have broader consequences for our city as well. It would mean that we as a city are committed to maintaining our public institutions and investing in the everyday people that make our city functional and vibrant. Moreover, it would be a step towards interrupting the race- and class-based inequality that has plagued our city since its founding. This is a real departure from the previous plans and is what justice looks like.

At the end of the day, this decision is not about money, or lack thereof. It is about where political will lies and on whose behalf it functions. 

Kristen Hackett is a member of the Justice For All Coalition, a group of LIC and Astoria residents fighting for dignified housing, good jobs and just development in Western Queens, and a doctoral candidate and fellow at The Graduate Center, CUNY.