The Unspoken Problem about the NYCHA Report from the Federal Monitor 

By Pete Harrison (@PeteHarrisonNYC)

On Monday, Bart Schwartz, the federal monitor appointed in February to oversee the New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA) lead remediation efforts published his first quarterly report. It was, predictably, rough going. 

NYCHA is failing residents on many fronts. Most urgently, and the basis of the federal lawsuit, hundreds of children remain exposed to lead paint, including 18 reports of children with elevated blood levels from this year alone. Residents and workers across the portfolio of 176,000 homes are also exposed to dangerous levels of mold, pet infestation, waste management overflow, lack of heat and hot water, and structural building failures. 

The report outlines a depressing lack of organization within the authority. Poor internal communication, resident-focused communication, data collection, record keeping, project oversight, and poor communication with the monitor itself. 

The first report was always going to be bleak because it had to account for the circumstances that existed before the monitorship, but it paints a daunting picture of the landscape going forward.

A lot of the commentary on this report will stop there. The typical media narrative around NYCHA is that public housing has failed. The government can’t run it. This report plays right into it.

This does the full story of NYCHA a terrible disservice. The reasons for NYCHA’s systemic failures are more complicated than media coverage allows. Not acknowledging them in full detail makes it impossible to think seriously about how to save NYCHA going forward. 

The complicated history and structure of NYCHA doesn’t help it, either. It is owned by the city, but gets about one-third of its budget funding from HUD (including Section 8 funding), and additional funding from the state. But HUD has cut more than a billion dollars to NYCHA since 2001. The state has slimmed its commitments too and didn’t add any money in this budget season. (The fact that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was once HUD Secretary shouldn’t be lost on anyone.)

The federal and state cuts (plus cuts during the Bloomberg Administration) over so many years have compounded and resulted in a $32 billion capital budget shortfall. It’s remarkable that NYCHA is still standing at all.

The monitorship was a half measure that doesn’t change any of this. New York City didn’t want to lose control over NYCHA, partly because it would be deeply embarrassing for the de Blasio administration, but mostly because other HUD takeovers of public housing authorities have been disastrous, even without considering the ghoulishness of the current administration. 

The monitorship agreement maintains city control, but requires it to spend $2.2 billion over the next decade on reforms and repairs. However, it doesn’t require any new money from the state or the federal government, which calls into question how serious this monitorship is about actually solving the issues in NYCHA.

Some, including HUD regional head Lynne Patton, have argued that there is plenty of money that just needs to be managed better. Although it is true that there is some money around and that NYCHA has mismanaged much of it, it is patently false to say that it comes close to $32 billion. 

The problem with the monitorship, and with public housing in the US in general, is that no one in our government is committed to it as an idea. Yes, there are officials who care deeply about the safety of residents and who want to protect the existing homes (in some form) but that’s about it. That doesn’t leave public housing residents and advocates with a lot of champions or options to work with on sustainable solutions.

That’s a really big problem because, even though this monitorship isn’t designed to be a referendum on the future of NYCHA, it is absolutely a referendum on the future of NYCHA. Based on how narrowly the problem is being framed in it’s work, that future is almost guaranteed to involve massive privatization, displacement, and demolition. 

That’s already under way. Mayor de Blasio has proposed converting 62,000 of the authority’s homes into privately managed Section 8 housing through the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program. In the mayor’s defense, this is the only source of new revenue on offer from the federal government. So called “in-fill development” of private luxury housing and demolition of existing buildings on NYCHA property is moving along at several developments. Last month, the “privatization czar” Gregory Russ was appointed chair of NYCHA to smooth out this transition. 

The irony is, this will all end up costing the public more than simply funding rehabilitation directly through the federal government. Under the RAD program, residents still pay 30% of their income in rent, but private landlords can charge a higher market rate with the taxpayer picking up the difference. It’s only a matter of time before these private developers get permission to raise rents or fully convert to market rate. And finally, if all of this conversion “works”, it is still not enough money to preserve the other homes under management.

This process also barely acknowledges the specter of climate change. A considerable portion of the NYCHA housing stock is located in flood zones that face serious risk of future damage. Seven years after Superstorm Sandy damaged many developments, millions of dollars pegged for repairs remain undelivered. It is alarming that resiliency planning is still more of a talking point rather than a strategic commitment in these discussions. Expect more from DFP on this soon.

Losing NYCHA would be an unmitigated disaster for the 600,000 New Yorkers who call it home and it would have a long-lasting negative impact on the city and the country as it grapples with the affordable housing crisis. We have outlined how important publicly owned homes are going to be in solving the crisis and we have polling data that shows that there is broad support for them. 

We need more publicly owned homes in America. Millions more. Abandoning NYCHA, the largest and oldest collection in the country, is the exact opposite of what we need to do, but as the politics surrounding the monitorship show, that’s where we appear to be heading unless things change. We should all want the monitor to succeed for the safety of residents, but we must monitor the monitor for the safety of public housing.

Pete Harrison (@PeteHarrisonNYC) is a senior adviser to Data for Progress, focused on housing. He is a co-founder of homeBody.

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