The crisis in the New York City Housing Authority’s ability to provide heat, hot water, safe and healthy living conditions is not grounded in lack of competency, transparency or oversight. But founded on the reality of an American political-economy that views the land these housing developments sit on more valuable than the Black and Brown lives of its tenants—and certainly not worth the massive expenditures that decades of neglect have wreaked upon the infrastructures of these buildings.
The hard truth of this reality bore itself out at the recent city council hearings on the crisis of heating services in New York City Housing Authority Developments. The meeting’s leadership was chaired by Alicka Ampry-Samuel, new chairperson of the Council’s Public Housing Committee; former chair Richie Torres, now chair of Oversight and Investigation; and new Council Speaker Cory Johnson, along with other Council members entering and exiting at various times.
The hearing was packed with tenant leaders and residents who unloaded on the Council their dire circumstances as development after development, more than 300,000 residents, lost heat and hot water on average of 48 hours so far this winter. An unparalleled occurrence, expedited by what weather services called a winter season opening “snow bomb.” A so-called bomb that more revealed the steadily decline of public housing than its cause.
Of course, Council members took turns in criticizing NYCHA Chairwoman Shola Olatoye for serious failures in how NYCHA has handled lead-paint inspections and now the latest crisis of heating services—criticisms that have some very valid points. However, it would be very difficult to believe, say, on the issue of lead paint transparency, that it was not the mayor himself who by commission or omission managed how information was to be publicized.
If NYCHA was a United States city it would be ranked approximately 31st. However, without the power of a city or state to elect its own leadership, raise its own revenue or implement its laws, regulations or demands, the people become victims without any self-determination or ability to defend their own civil and human right to quality, safe, healthy and culturally strong housing developments.
During the hearing, Ampry-Samuel informed Olatoye that the mayor, while speaking at an unrelated news conference occurring then in front of City Hall, when asked about whether public housing tenants deserved the same quality of housing as anyone else, responded (paraphrasing), “NYCHA residents deserve the best quality housing that monies will allow”—a politically guarded statement in presentation, but one that turns on a very truthful reality. Your quality of housing is measured by the investments made in it and those investments are determined by your worth in this society. And listening to the voices of the people at the hearing, one could not ignore that our people, even our most vulnerable members, our seniors and children, are viewed not worthy not in words but through deeds.
There is the national call of “America First [code white first],” which blares from the speaker box mouth of the current White House custodian. Plans continue for ethnic cleansing in our communities under the banner of so-called gentrification. And as housing daily increases its value as a commodity in the marketplace, rather than as the right of a human being, the threat to public housing and redevelopment of its land for profit continues at a rapid rate.
Therefore, hearings such as the one just finished can never address the fundamental underlying issues of public housing in particular or housing in general because its members are not simply tied, but lashed to a presentation of the issues involved, hampered by those creating the problem and who call the shots.
What truly gets obscured in these hearings and debates is the fact that NYCHA residents are unorganized to the level needed to change the conversation and actions regarding their rights—their human right to housing.