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

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, New York City needed more affordable housing for the vast numbers of our neighbors living one crisis away from homelessness. Now that COVID-19 has overnight wiped out countless jobs and income and scrambled the rental housing market, the crisis has arrived. New York City is not prepared for the onslaught that is underway.

The coronavirus calamity highlights the important long-term role of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) as the city’s most affordable source of housing. NYCHA’s units are a critical part of the safety net, an alternative to house poor and working-class families otherwise forced onto the streets. Yet, NYCHA needs $40 billion in repairs for its gargantuan housing stock.

NYCHA and its chairman, Gregory Russ, have offered a forward-thinking proposal to create a NYC Public Housing Preservation Trust, modeled after the New York City School Construction Authority (NYCSCA). The trust would take ownership of 110,000 public housing apartments, fund and oversee repairs and then contract NYCHA to manage the fixed-up units. The funding requires complex internal financial gymnastics by NYCHA without a doubt. In the end, instead of private developers being owners, the units would remain publicly owned.

The NYC Public Housing Preservation Trust requires voters in November make a leadership change in the White House. That’s a prerequisite because the very idea of federal support for any sort of innovative public housing financing plan seems unrealistic. The Trump administration has consistently, year after year, proposed slashing HUD’s budget and ending urgently needed capital subsidies for public housing.

Needless to say, this is an ambitious plan that faces many hurdles. State and City legislation will be necessary to create the Preservation Trust – and quite naturally Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo can be expected to mud wrestle over the political crosscurrents, control of board appointments, oversight, and the like. It merits our encouragement and cautious support.

To be sure, the trust approach represents, in effect, the “worst-case” strategy should nothing else work. It provides an interesting vision for a comprehensive approach to financing and preservation while keeping intact protections for residents. It cleverly uses HUD’s own disposition rules to identify a financing solution at a moment when there are limited tools available to NYCHA, City Hall or the New York State Legislature.

We must support new ideas at this point in the search for a necessary course of correction. Since the 1980s, the United States has primarily depended on private, market-oriented solutions to its housing and urban problems — strategies like mayors Michael Bloomberg’s and de Blasio’s use of land and corporate tax credits as a lure for private developers to construct low-income housing. At its root, the crisis is a supply problem. But there just isn’t enough activity to meet today’s COVID-19 crisis, no less the anticipated homeless crisis in 2021 caused by depression-level unemployment.

Aside from Democratic office-seekers, the political conversation around housing has been muted, and the political will to act at the federal level has been almost nonexistent. If Democrats come to power, infrastructure spending bills could come into play that include major funding for public housing. For instance, legislation proposed by U.S. Representatives Maxine Waters, Nydia Velazquez, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would net $70 billion in capital funds for public housing nationwide, with $20 billion going to NYCHA. 

HUD (its current leadership, at least) has hardly stepped up to address America’s affordable housing crisis, a long-simmering issue for people of low and moderate incomes. The pandemic has unleashed a tsunami of renters and mortgage defaulters who face eviction or foreclosure. Overall, it is estimated that as many as 28 million people across our nation may be evicted from their homes once COVID-related moratoriums and income supports end. And those who face eviction or foreclosure are disproportionately the poor and people of color who face a greater probability of being unable to pay during the pandemic.

Even before the pandemic, people of color were on the edge. Nationwide, 55 percent of Black renters spent more than 30 percent of their income on housing in 2016, the typical threshold at which experts say costs begin to crowd out other necessities. That compares with 54 percent of Latino households and 43 percent of white households, according to an analysis of census data from Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.

There is no reason to believe the creation of a Preservation Trust will be smooth or easy. Ultimately, the housing authority is hostage to a paradox: On one hand, it must deliver safe and adequate housing as it did decades ago. But at the same time the political, economic, social and today’s public health forces battering NYCHA have never been so perplexing.

The challenges at NYCHA will not magically melt away. City Hall, Albany, builders, investors, banks and community housing advocates for the poor cannot be walled off from the problems. Everyone faces the same headaches.

We dive into the NYCHA pool together. We are all going to get wet.

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.