NYCHA Housing (21851)

Some of us old enough to remember when public housing, a brand-spanking-new, two-bedroom residence in the projects, was considered “upward mobility” not only are nostalgic about the past but also sympathize with those currently in desperate straits for decent housing.

It was, back then, like getting a part of the American Dream. The new residence, a place where you were the first to live after the social worker had worked a miracle, brought nothing short of jubilation, a joy as enduring as the manicured lawns. There was no stigma attached to the housing; it was not a prison sentence.

Back in the day, those lucky applicants for public housing moved into apartments that were freshly painted, with functioning elevators, no urine odors in the hallway or in the stairwells, and the drug dealers still a decade or so from invasion.

These high-rise units were the answer to the low-income residents in need of affordable housing, and they sprang up like towering mushrooms from Techwood in Atlanta, to Cabrini Green in Chicago, to the Richard Allen Homes in Philadelphia, to the Brewster Projects in Detroit. Sadly, all of them were either demolished or are still standing like giant tombstones.

Here in New York City—the pace-setting city for such living quarters—units such as the Castle Hill Houses in the Bronx or the Baruch Houses in lower Manhattan have not faced off with the wrecking ball, but they are a wreck and in need of repair and restoration. The public housing that once appeared as a blessing is now a curse.

We take our lead on this pressing issue from friends and associates who have brought the problem of public housing to our attention, one of them saying that getting into a decent public housing unit “is equivalent to winning the lottery.”

“New York City is in a bind,” is the basic claim of a recent Atlantic magazine article, and it’s hard not to agree with this conclusion. But unlike most cities with a preponderance of dilapidated projects, the New York version still stands with no plans for their destruction and no federal money for improvements.

One plan proposed by Mayor Bill de Blasio to improve conditions is to charge more for parking, the redeployment of staff to other agencies and leasing land within the units to private developers to save money. Saving money is one thing, how you spend it is another. Most of the complaints from tenants are about maintenance and security, which, if attended to, would go a long way toward the desired relief.

The latter part of the mayor’s plan was strongly resisted by tenants four years ago in the St. Nicholas Houses, but a lawsuit failed to stop the erection of a charter school in the heart of the complex. We covered this dispute from beginning to end.

So how does the city get out of this Rubik’s Cube of a bind? One that suffers from inadequate federal funds (the Hope VI program, while effective in some areas of the country, would not decentralize poverty in New York City), along with an endless line of applicants waiting to get into less than ideal dwellings.

Obviously, there is no easy solution to a problem that has taken years to grow and metastasize, and even some of the “social housing” programs that have been so successful in countries such as Denmark and Austria are basically dependent on government financing, which brings us full circle in our public housing dilemma.

This is a deep systemic problem that only the combined efforts of the federal government with its funds, public housing experts and their vision, the will of city leaders and the sustained demands of the dispossessed will begin to remedy. If any one of these vectors is missing in the equation, we can expect more of the same. As a fan’s sign read at a recent playoff basketball game, “It takes a team to make the dream come true!”