May 7, 2021


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The NIGHTMARE of NYC’s 180,000 PUBLIC housing units ($32 billion GAP)

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New York, that concrete jungle where dreams are made,  as rapper Jay-Z would say, is also one of the most expensive cities in the world.And yes, obviously that includes housing prices as well.  

The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment 
in New York City is $2,695 a month, and if that sounds like a lot to you, keep in mind that in pre-pandemic times that amount was $3,500.Yes, we are talking about the average price, obviously, you can find cheaper alternatives and it is also true that in New York salaries are high, but even so, as you can imagine, these are prices that are not suitable for all pockets.So low-income New Yorkers have to settle for  affordable housing under city- or New York State-sponsored plans,  or for living in a public housing apartment. And it is precisely the latter .

We are going to analyze one of the most  extensive public housing policies in the world.And the first thing we have to do is to be clear  about the difference between affordablehousing and public housing.

The first,  affordable housing is that which is subject toa program of subsidies or tax breaks aimed at  the price of rents, rents that are usually in private housing developments.The second, public housing, s a type of housing 
built, maintained and managed entirely by public  administrations. That is, housing in which, for example, if the boiler breaks down or the  elevator breaks down, a public worker is in charge of managing the incident and solving the problem.

And it is in New York, precisely, where the largest public housing administration  in North America is located, the New York City Housing Authority,  better known under its acronym – NYCHA NYCHA was created in 1934, in the years  following the notorious Crash of 1929, which plunged the city into a deep economic crisis  and plunged a significant part of the middle class of that time into poverty.Due to this crisis, many New Yorkers lost their homes and were forced to live in substandard  housing or crowded into shared apartments.

So, in order to solve this problem,  then-Mayor Fiorello Enrico La Guardia founded NYCHA by mandate of the State of New York. It was a massive public housing program managed primarily by the New York City Council but whose financial resources came primarily from the federal government and tenants’ own rents.

By all accounts, this initiative started out very well, however it has been suffering  from many problems for decades: Financial unviability, the emergence of ghettos and serious maintenance problems are just a few examples. And precisely because of this,

we  are going to tell you about how the jewel, the pride of New York’s social policies, has today  become one of its greatest embarrassments. This is the story of one of the great failures of social  policies in the United States ofAmerica.Listen up.

In the 1930s, the public housing model experienced a radical boom in the United States.Practically on a daily basis, many cities across the country implemented this type of housing policy to respond to the consequences of theeconomic crisis. But of all of them, New York was  undoubtedly the one that did it most decisively.Initially, the program consisted of acquiring real estate developments left unfinished or bankrupt due to the crisis. Developments that were then completed by the recently created Housing Authority to house people with economic  problems in exchange for a very low rent.

Now, if you think that the model was initially  oriented to help the poorest, you would be very mistaken.In fact, it was just the opposite. NYCHA prevented lower-income residents from accessing this assistance, which was basically intended to “bail out,” , the middle class that  was having a hard time during the crisis. Then, later,

During the 1950s and 1960s,  a literal “list of moral factors” was established that thoroughly excluded the poorest and most vulnerable. For example, people with irregular jobs in  their employment history, mental problems, alcoholism, single mothers or even people  with a lack of furniture could not reside in this type of housing.  

It was believed that these exclusionary factors would preserve the safety, health and morale  of these new communities. Remember that we are talking about a country and a time where classism  and racism were still the order of the day. Thus, in practice, for the first few decades of  NYCHA’s operation, its promotions were filled with white residents. Racial minorities were excluded.  This, let’s call it, marginalization, further condemned minorities to social exclusion,  which in turn fueled crime. It wasn’t simply that they no longer received assistance,  but that the system deliberately excluded them These groups were confned to ghettos, had less  access to the public services that the city concentrated in areas considered “respectable”,  thus feeding social rejection. 

And so it began all over again.  In fact, this is considered to be one of the factors that explains  the serious crime and drug problems that the city had during the 1970s and 1980s. But let’s not get sidetracked.outcome was, like it or not, excluding all those people made  living in NYCHA housing somewhat desirable. After all, we are talking about residential  complexes that in many cases had better living conditions than many private middle-class homes:  Remember that we are talking about new housing and that they also had community  services such as their own maintenance services, first aid, stores, schools and security services.  

They even had gardens and private parking areas, something rare at that time…  In addition, the money coming in from the federal government was plentiful so  the housing complexes kept maintenance tasks up–date without asking the tenants to pay.Their boiler broke down? No problem, they called and it was fixed. They had a leak  in the sink? Exactly the same thing. That the place needed a paint? No problem, it was done!At its peak, there were 17,000 employees in charge of the maintenance of the hundreds  of public residential buildings in New York City.

They even had their own police force with  2,700 officers until they were integrated into the NYPD in 1995.In short, living conditions up until the 1960s were even better than what the middle  class could find in the private market, and by that time NYCHA was already the  landlord of about half a million New Yorkers. However, during the 1960s, with the improvement  of conditions for the white middle class and the prosperity experienced in the country,  there was a growing presence of low-income minorities moving into public housing.

In addition, in 1968, under pressure from activists and the federal government itself,  New York eliminated many of the “moral” requirements for access to the program,  which further increased demand.this caused a change in the style of housing that began to be built.Suddenly the model of low blocks and wide green spaces was changed to huge towers of about 20  floors to house more and more people. These were urban developments that were not well integrated  in the urban plan. The priority was no longer to guarantee a good standard of living but,  above all, to distribute housing to as many people as possible…

And perhaps that is why the consequences of this new model were not well thought out.  Many urban planners consider, in fact, that the new model created a third city within New York.  Basically, what was incubating was a social division that would end up  exploding in the following decade, during the 1970s. Want to know how NYCHA’s fall from grace unfolded? Then listen up.
In 1998 was a turning point, a decade of many changes in New  York’s public residential developments.The newer public housing neighborhoods  had no commercial premises or space to set up businesses, and thus quickly became isolated  from the dynamics of the rest of the city. This, added to the marginalization and exclusion  suffered by the Afro-American community, quickly turning the nine public housing  units into dangerous ghettos where crime and vandalism were rampant.Let’s just say that many people were given housing but not a way of life or an alternative source of  income beyond social service benefits.Nor were cultural differences studied or  plans established to favor the inclusion of people with more problems. Not at all.What was done was to mix all kinds of people, usually black, with very different  socioeconomic and personal circumstances in huge blocks isolated from the city. It was the  perfect breeding ground for a lot of problems.An example? These neighborhoods were the hardest  hit by the crack epidemic of the 1980s. A period during which many residents used their homes as a  point of sale and consumption of narcotics.But that is not all.  Along with the changes in public policy orientation, there was another  determining factor in the progressive abandonment of New York public housing.

In 1978, the Housing and Community Development Act, also known as Section 8, was passed,  creating the Housing Choice Voucher Program.In theory, this program implied a policy  change whereby the model of public housing built, managed and maintained by public  administrations began to be replaced by subsidized housing in the private market A perhaps more efficient, cheaper and fairer model but which, of course, meant a savage cut  in federal funding for NYCHA, which was considered an obsolete and decaying model. This quickly  translated into a serious lack of maintenance of New York’s public housing and buildings.To give you an idea, a large percentage of NYCHA’s 2,462 buildings are currently in a  third-world state of disrepair.Leaky roofs when it rains,  constant breakdowns in the old boilers in the middle of winter, broken windows that take  weeks or months to repair, kitchens that don’t work, destroyed communal areas..The situation is so dramatic that, to this day,  living conditions in many of the NYCHA buildings are very harsh.

And remember that we are talking about a city where temperatures  can drop to an average of -10 degrees celsius in winter.The problem is that the lack of federal funding does not appear likely to be reversed. And I say problem because NYCHA is estimated to need at least $31.8  billion in repairs, a bill that keeps growing. In fact, it is estimated that by 2027,  90% of NYCHA housing units will have reacheda point where it is cheaper to  demolish and rebuild them than to repair them.

Yes, New York’s public housing system ended up condemning thousands and thousands of people to a life of near marginalization, surrounded by crime,  drugs, exclusion and deprivation of all kinds. This is one of those cases in which an apparent  gift ended up becoming a poisoned gift.And of course, the question that comes up  is… so what is the solution? Even with all these issues and thinking about the future, the New York Housing Authority has  two great strengths: it has no debts and it has an enormous asset list. We are talking about   2,462 buildings and more than 10 km2 of land in  a city where, believe me, land is very expensive. However, it also has two major weaknesses: the lack of maintenance and abandonment  of the properties, which we have already mentioned, and a chronic shortage of income. You see, the income from rents and fees from tenants, who pay an average of $484 a month  in rent, only covers one-third of NYCHA’s  expenses. The rest has to be subsidized.

In addition, there is also a significant problem  of non-payments. Thirty percent of  the monthly payments are not paid. Right now, the biggest problem for the city is the more than $30 billion that needs to be  invested in buildings that are falling apart. And the question is, is there an alternative? Well, the current mayor, Bill de Blasio, thinks so. You see, de Blasio has pushed a ten-year plan  called NextGeneration, with three key goals firstly, to repair the most serious maintenance deficiencies;   secondly, to reduce the imbalance between income and expenditure; and finally, to strengthen the   housing voucher model promoted by Section 8. To achieve the former, de Blasio has opened   NYCHA to public-private partnerships, under the federal RAD program,

so that some of the   developments are becoming privately managed. In other words, management and maintenance   have begun to be outsourced. And so far the results don’t look bad at all.There are now almost 15,000 privately operated public apartments in New York,   about 9% of the total. And remember this is only the beginning,   because the idea of the plan is that there will end up being 62,000 homes under this   system. One third of the total. But how will this new model work? Well, one – or several – private companies will be in charge of managing and maintaining   the housing complexes transferred by NYCHA,  which, of course, will continue to own them.

However, tenants will no longer pay their rent to  the municipal authority but to private companies,   which will have to comply with the rent cost limit set by law for subsidized housing. In addition, tenants who were already under the   previous model will not be able to be evicted from their homes. And what do they get in return?Well, this outsourcing is allowing the  comprehensive renovation of entire developments without increasing public spending. And so far   it seems that tenants under this new  system are already beginning to notice it. So there you have it, the purely public housing   model has failed in New York and the City’s Housing Authority could become   a mere concession-granting landlord rather than a fully-fledged manager.

This is supposed to make private companies  more proactive in requiring tenants to take   care of their homes and more efficient with  expenses. But will all this be enough? It certainly doesn’t seem  like a simple task. But it   could be a good way to start making a difference. Think about it for a moment, living in an abandoned and very run down environment   becomes a hotbed of problems. That’s exactly  what the evidence and the experiments that   have been done seem to say. So at least from  that point of view it looks like good news,   a first step…. Or rather a second. The first  was to acknowledge the failure of the program   In any case, what is clear is that good  intentions do not always translate into   good policies. It pays to be wary. So what do you think is the best   way to reduce social exclusion among the most  disadvantaged sectors of the urban population?


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