NYCHA housing in the Bronx

Housing Authority is in desperate need of repair on all fronts

By Felipe De La Hoz

If you’ve ever put off a chore like doing your dishes or cleaning out a vacuum filter, you know that the problem tends to only get worse and harder to deal with the longer you wait. Multiply that by several orders of magnitude and you get the New York City Housing Authority system, the nation’s largest public housing authority by far with about 340,000 residents spread out over some 162,000 apartments.

Over decades of disinvestment and mismanagement, the system has reached a crisis point, with residents suffering from constantly broken public infrastructure like elevators, disrepair including mold damage and busted appliances, vermin, lead paint, and a variety of other challenges. Not every apartment is in such a state, of course, but thousands are and have been for a long time.

As time passes, the problems and the logistical and financial challenges they present just get worse and worse. A report released in 2013 estimated that it would take $17 billion to bring all NYCHA housing stock up to good repair. Less than a decade later, that number stands at over $40 billion. For reference, this is over seven times the annual city budget for the whole of Philadelphia.

Housing developments in the Bronx

Even if this money were to magically fall from the sky or, just slightly more realistically, be allocated by the federal government, leadership would have to competently and efficiently spend the money; in the gentlest possible terms, this has not been the norm. Some of the issues stem from pure incompetence and misconduct, such as contractors bribing NYCHA managers and employees claiming fraudulent overtime. Some of it is structural, such as complicated procurement processes that make it difficult and time-consuming to acquire necessary services and equipment like boilers. All of it contributes to a state of persistent dysfunction.

Leadership has tried to raise capital and improve management in several ways, most of which invariably end up being hugely controversial. It has sold excess air rights, allowing developers to build taller buildings elsewhere. It’s privatized thousands of apartments under a program known as Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), with private managers taking over buildings in exchange for investment into maintenance and repair, eliciting complaints from tenants who claim that the new owners aren’t holding up their end of the bargain or fear that the conversions will make them easier to evict and allow for the deregulation of apartments.

The most recent effort, just passed by the State Legislature, involves the creation of something called the Public Housing Preservation Trust. In base terms, the trust is a public benefit corporation, legally similar to the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), that would take control of some number of NYCHA units and can receive federal grants that are unavailable to the housing authority, opening up a much more robust revenue stream that can be used to fund repairs. It would also in theory be able to cut through some of the procurement and contracting morass and act much faster to deliver for residents.

Contrary to RAD, the apartments would be taken over by a fully public entity; despite the transfers, the Trust would still be state-controlled and subject to all the same legal restrictions and agreements with tenants, maintaining the same requirement for affordability. Still, the prospect of any other manager taking over apartments has some residents feeling distrustful, particularly in light of earlier broken promises. Understanding this, the state has built an opt-in provision here: through some still-to-be-developed process, tenants will be able to vote to have their buildings added to the Trust, or keep them the way they are. It’s now up to the city to prove that the new model will work, and earn their vote.

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Felipe De La Hoz is an immigration-focused journalist who has written investigative and analytic articles, explainers, essays, and columns for the New Republic, The Washington Post, New York Mag, Slate,...

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