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

After months-long Washington debate over what constitutes infrastructure and whether housing and social programs qualify, one hurdle has just been crossed. Last week the U.S. Senate passed a $1 trillion bi-partisan infrastructure deal, largely covering roads, bridges, tunnels, rail, and broadband.

But, at the eleventh hour, in a 50-49 vote along party lines, it also cleared the way for the $3.5 trillion “companion” social infrastructure bill—including $332 billion for housing and transportation—that Democrats hope to pass, even with slim majorities.

For the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), its residents and advocates, key questions concern how much capital from the companion bill will be committed to public housing, and within that, how much can NYCHA expect to address its daunting $40 billion capital backlog and the deplorable conditions residents face. At the moment, these questions remain unanswered.

The $80 Billion Question

The capital need for the nation’s long-neglected, aging public housing stock is estimated at $80 billion or more. When President Biden first launched his $5 trillion infrastructure proposal—the American Jobs Plan—he proposed a disappointing $40 billion for public housing, barely enough to meet NYCHA’s needs alone. Our NYC delegation, particularly Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer and Representative Nydia Velazquez, have vigorously pressed the White House for the full $80 billion. But the $332 billion is still a “black box” with no details. We should demand no less than the $80 billion required to meet the national need.

The Allocation Issue

Even if $80 billion is committed, the question remains how Congress will distribute it to local housing authorities. That will determine how much NYCHA stands to gain. There are differing views. For instance, one bill by Rep. Maxine Waters proposes that half of the funds be reserved for competitive grants, the rest allocated using the existing formula for annual capital subsidies. Another bill by Rep. Velazquez proposes that the distribution be based on capital need, which would favor NYCHA. The problem with going the competitive grant route is that it will cost time and effort, can be blind to need, and may well leave deserving applicants with nothing. Congress should instead eliminate competitive grants and develop a new formula, one that is fair and equitable, and allocates these one-time funding opportunities based on capital need.

The Odds for NYCHA

Democrats hope to pass the $3.5 trillion bill under budget reconciliation rules, which will improve its odds of passage in both chambers in Congress, but not guarantee it. Much depends on whether their slim majority in both the House and Senate overcomes differences and stands united. There is revived concern about the national deficit among Republicans, and conservative Democrats. Within that context, the NYC delegation should use its leverage to press for the full $80 billion and a NYCHA allocation that approaches the $40 billion its residents need.

Once the dust settles on the federal infrastructure and budget reconciliation debates by late September, or early October, NYCHA will know what it can expect from Washington. There will be a lot to do. It may be necessary for the authority to strengthen its capacity to move capital into construction projects. It would also be the right time to develop a new, comprehensive plan to renovate all NYCHA developments to make them livable. Toward that end, it would be an ideal time to convene a small, high-level working group—NYCHA, resident and community leaders, resource organizations—to assess options and arrive at a consensus plan that assures the future of our public housing.

There is also a role for Democratic mayoral nominee Eric Adams to play. He can underscore the urgency surrounding NYCHA’s capital needs, and signal that unlike the de Blasio administration, public housing will be part of a uniform approach to creating and preserving affordable housing in his administration.

Despite the deplorable conditions that residents face, there is no question that public housing is a vital part of the city’s affordable housing infrastructure. NYCHA’s 176,000 units house more than a half-million residents. It constitutes one out of every 12 rental units in the city, and about a quarter of those occupied by low-income New Yorkers, many of whom are Black and brown.

What can we do to see that Washington comes through for public housing? Our Congressional delegation have been spirited advocates, but they will need to convince their Democrat colleagues with a bare majority to stand strong on the companion bill, as well as any upstate and red-state colleagues who can be swayed.

If there is a capital commitment, the House Transportation and HUD Appropriations Subcommittee (THUD) will be crucial in deciding first, how much of the pot should public housing receive; and second, what formula will be used to allocate the capital to individual housing authorities.

With mid-term elections coming in 2022, and Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate in jeopardy, this is the opportunity to get something monumental done on public housing. After decades of disinvestment, underfunding, neglect and mismanagement, NYCHA is on the brink. This could be our last chance to right the ship.

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 175 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.