David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) the nation’s largest public housing agency that was once one of the nation’s best run, has declined into a shameful state of disrepair as a result of neglect by the federal government and simultaneous disinvestment by state and local governments. The time has come, once and for all, to address the vicious cycle of declining resources.

After a decade of underfunding and aging infrastructure, NYCHA has reached a negative tipping point that has caused real pain for its 400,000+ tenants. Four out of five public housing residents were without heat at some point last winter as aging boilers, substandard apartment conditions, and leaky roofs continued to contribute to a backlog of $20 billion in needed infrastructure repairs.

The former NYCHA Chairwoman Shola Olatoye, who resigned this month, was not the source of all the agency’s problems. Yes, she made serious mistakes such as when the NYCHA failed to carry out inspections for lead-based paint risks. But NYCHA’s problems – internal and external – are longstanding. Reform is badly needed in its bread-and-butter housing management operations. There is no excuse for not keeping boilers running in the winter or conducting required lead-paint inspections to protect children. Yet installing new leadership at NYCHA will mean little if the same obstacles that prevent NYCHA from fulfilling its mission to provide safe and affordable are not dealt with.

Now is the time for Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio to stop the grandstanding and to, once and for all, work together in good faith to shore up problems with the NYCHA. The governor and mayor have openly feuded over their respective responsibilities to the NYCHA. Their testy tit-for-tat feud and attacks on each other’s commitment to public housing residents only further stigmatizes NYCHA and plays right into the hands of those who would like to see public housing assets transferred to private interests, or demolished and redeveloped as they were in Chicago and Atlanta. NYCHA is at a vulnerable, and crucial period in its history. We need Mayor de Blasio and Gov. Cuomo, both of whom have policy experience in public housing, to work together to marshal the political will and funds needed to preserve New York’s greatest affordable housing resource.

A good place to start would be by fast-tracking priority repairs at NYCHA. For this strategy to work, everyone involved must come to the table – the mayor, the governor, labor unions and construction contractors. The unions and contractors must be willing to waive or renegotiate their arcane work rules that limit NYCHA’s ability to expedite major repairs. Progress is possible if we persevere.

The state and city must think outside the box. The mayor and governor should signal a new era of cooperation by coming together and creating a priority list of NYCHA infrastructure repairs. Armed with such a list the next step for them would be to formulate a multi-year plan to fund the NYCHA capital needs. The plan will require both New York City and New York State to supply major capital funding. The plan also will require a well-conceived outline to guide the coordination of work by city and state agencies.

We can all agree that the solution to New York City’s housing affordability crisis includes a revitalized NYCHA, which represents the fastest and most cost-effective way to maintain affordable alternatives in the housing market – some argue the only alternative – for people living at or below the poverty level (defined as $25,000 in annual income for a family of four).

To his credit, Mayor de Blasio took a major step to help NYCHA with the commitment of $1 billion to replace deteriorating roofs on NYCHA buildings over the next 10 years. Over 700 buildings and more than 120,000 NYCHA residents will reap the benefits of this investment. It was a solid step toward getting sorely needed basic infrastructure repairs that go a long way toward improving NYCHA buildings’ livability.

But the city’s investment in fixing public housing is dwarfed by the $16.9 billion it is spending over twelve years under its Housing New York plan, which seeks to create or preserve 300,000 income-targeted housing units by 2026. None of this money will go to NYCHA. At the state level, New York plans to spend billions on affordable housing in the private sector, and only a fraction on public housing. The only conceivable explanation for this imbalance, as well as the government neglect that brought us to this point, is that we continue to place less value on those who live in public housing. That’s the uncomfortable truth, and it’s time we did something about it.

The responsibility for everyone involved is clear: NYCHA housing helps families, preserves neighborhoods, and may very well be the last affordable housing safety net in New York City.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.