The NYCHA Murphy Houses in the Bronx. Photo: Tdorante10 via Creative Commons

Yesterday, a 188-page report dropped like a ton of bricks on the city’s housing policy and advocacy community. It was the latest so-called physical needs assessment (PNA) for the New York City Housing Authority’s enormous system of developments, which make it the largest public housing authority in the country by far.

The report itself is written in the type of often inscrutable technical language that you might expect; it’s a lengthy document written collaboratively by massive, multinational professional services and engineering consulting firms (STV Incorporated and AECOM). Yet at its most distilled, it makes a few simple, overarching observations:

  • Most of NYCHA’s housing stock is old, with a 60-year average age for buildings, 70% of which were built prior to 1970.
  • This age has manifested in a kind of persistent deterioration, with buildings and apartments experiencing an overall decay that has only accelerated as time goes on.
  • While building-wide issues like elevator outages often draw public attention, the most intensive and costly deficiencies and subsequent repairs are inside apartments, mostly kitchens and bathrooms.
  • Base necessities like materials and labor to fix the developments’ myriad issues have risen significantly, well beyond inflation.
  • The cost of repairs has an exponential relationship to how long they’re pending, meaning that a failure to make repairs in a timely manner makes the problems worse and increasingly expensive.

This might not exactly be earth-shattering stuff — some might even call it common sense — but it’s useful to have an exhaustively detailed report in hand validating those points. To write the report, STV/AECOM inspected 30 of the housing authority’s 264 developments (those still managed by NYCHA directly and not included in the PACT program; more on that later), including at least one in every borough. These two companies surveyed representative apartments,d common areas and exteriors, as well as the building’s mechanical guts.

Comparing its findings to the last PNA, from 2017, the companies attempted to gauge the level of continued deterioration and capital investment need, adding some new costs that were not included five years ago. Among these were decarbonization, accessibility improvements, and lead-paint abatement (that the latter was not included in the capital costs before is in itself a scandal, part of the broader scandal of NYCHA having falsified data on the prevalence of dangerous lead paint, as reported by THE CITY’s Greg B. Smith, one of the best reporters on the public housing beat).

The real eye-popping items are the topline figures, specifically the report’s conclusion that NYCHA needs a capital investment of $78.4 billion over the next 20 years to continue to be viable. Of that, $37.5 billion is identified as an immediate need, meaning that, in the estimation of two of the world’s largest engineering consulting firms, it must be invested at once to keep the system adequately habitable and operational.

Let’s pause for a second to consider that, and really digest these numbers. As I’ve said before, one of the frustrations of being a policy journalist is that at a certain scale the numbers get too abstract. The prior PNA had put NYCHA’s 20-year capital investment needs at $45.3 billion, which is the number that’s often been thrown around in the intervening time as the illustration of the authority’s massive need. Now, we’re being told that that the new figure is $33 billion higher than that, in contemporary dollars. The problem is that, for the average person, even the civically engaged one, that might as well be one gazillion versus two gazillion dollars. What do those figures even mean at that level?

One way around that conundrum, I’ve found, is to make comparisons to things that are more graspable. For example, let’s look at that $37.5 billion immediate need figure here. Remember the whole budget conundrum over the supposed massive costs of migrant arrivals to the city, which ended up looming large over budget negotiations and being utilized by the mayor as a rationale for making significant cuts elsewhere? The amount at issue was$4.3 billion over two fiscal years. Put another way, what the PNA says must be spent right now to ensure NYCHA’s viability is almost nine times the spending over two years that set off a budget negotiations crisis in the city.

NYCHA Sheepshead Houses. Photo: GK tramrunner RU via Creative Commons

Now, these are obviously not equivalent scenarios; NYCHA officially has nearly 530,000 residents, which, as the authority itself notes, means more people live in NYCHA buildings than in the entire cities of Sacramanto, Atlanta, or Miami. If you include unofficial residents, the number goes much higher. The funding structure isn’t also just a city expenditure. Much of NYCHA’s operational funding comes from rent collections, and it receives state and federal funding.

A few issues with that though: rent collections are way down, from  roughly 90%pre-pandemic to about 65 % now, in turn leading to difficulties making repairs and filling units– a vicious cycle. Obviously, the pandemic decimated a lot of people’s ability to pay rent, even if NYCHA rents are calculated as a function of tenant income, and it didn’t help that the first wave of rent relief funds approved by the state specifically excluded NYCHA tenants. Federal Section 9 funding writ large, which makes up the bulk of federal funding for public housing developments, has stagnated. More broadly, what the PNA assesses, and we’ve been discussing here, is capital and not operational funding, which means that it is additional to the enormous costs required just to keep buildings in operation.

For its part, NYCHA is putting most of its eggs in two baskets: the Permanent Affordability Commitment Together (PACT) program and the Housing Preservation Trust, which it estimates could collectively generate about $38 billion of the needed capital. The former program is a version of the federal Rental Assistance Demonstration initiative which, in a nutshell, allows public housing authorities to turn the management of some developments over to private companies and tap into some new sources of funding. The developments remain under NYCHA ownership and all the same tenant protections putatively apply, though tenants and advocates remain skeptical of what they view as the system’s privatization, including hints that the new managers are quicker to file eviction proceedings. Still, the authority is about halfway to its goal of 62,000 units under private management by 2028.

The Trust is newer, having been approved last year, and instead of turning management over to private companies, it would allow NYCHA to turnmanagement over to a new public corporation that would move units from Section 9 to Section 8 (the type that uses federallyfunded housing vouchers). This would open the doorto getting more federal funding and cutting through some of the authority’s existing issues with, for example, complex and burdensome contracting rules. No developments have yet been turned over to the Trust, in part because the legislation that created it mandates that specific developments actually vote on their desire to join the program, which will hopefully begin towards the end of this year.

Whether these management shifts will be enough to patch the ever-increasing capital budget hole remains to be seen. Here is the part where I’d typically give you my view on the right solution and maybe plug some civic action you could take, but I honestly don’t know how to fix this. Perhaps nobody does. The best I can say is that all New Yorkers, and particularly those who live in one of these developments, should be invested in and following along with the successes or failures of these proposed solutions.

Maybe PACT and the Trust really will generate the funding needed and accelerate repairs, but we’re also facing the most relentless opponent of all: the inexorable passage of time, which will keep deteriorating the structures and driving up the costs in a kind of Sisyphean battle to keep this authority running. The alternative is collapse, and that’s no choice either for the over half-million people who call NYCHA home.

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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