The just-passed $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill is one of the rare times New York City is in line to receive billions in federal money to transform its roads, airports, bridges, tunnels and subways.
Now comes the hard part: tough decisions in Albany about which projects get financing, a process that has in the past left out too many low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, and resulted in few construction jobs to Black and Latinx workers.
At the city level, Mayor-elect Eric Adams announced his priorities: the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA); extending the Second Avenue subway into East Harlem; and, improvements to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. “We should zero-in on NYCHA — that’s long been overdue – fixing NYCHA in a real way,” Adams said.
Gov. Kathy Hochul has signaled the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), of which I am a Board Member, plans to use much of the $10.7 billion in federal money the agency expects to receive to complete the long-delayed Second Avenue subway, which has a $6 billion price tag.
Unfortunately, the bipartisan bill does not directly target any funding for housing. And while there is significant money for public housing repairs in the Build Back Better social spending bill pending in the U.S. Senate, no one knows for sure when or if it will receive final approval. For that reason, Gov. Hochul should immediately direct money to NYCHA and the state’s other distressed housing authorities to get the ball rolling.
A significant infusion of federal capital would make it possible to restore nearly all NYCHA developments without transferring them to private hands under long-term leases, as is the case in the current RAD/PACT program. It should also make it possible for resident and community stakeholders in each development to have a seat at the table when preservation plans are being decided. The Chelsea NYCHA Working Group is a precedent-setting example of how the authority collaborated with residents to develop an ambitious, community-generated plan to preserve all three developments in the neighborhood.
Fixing NYCHA is Critical to Solving NYC’s Housing Affordability Crisis
This model can be replicated elsewhere in New York City, backed with federal repair dollars and a collective sigh of relief from weary public housing tenants who struggle daily with accelerating deterioration and fear that restoring their homes may result in their displacement.
Fixing NYCHA is critical to solving New York City’s housing affordability crisis, which has only gotten worse during the coronavirus pandemic. Public housing is arguably the most cost-effective way to provide affordable housing – some argue the only alternative – for people living at or below the federal poverty level (which in 2020 was $26,246 in annual income for a family of four).
Most significantly, infrastructure spending offers both the governor and mayor-elect a once in a generation chance to create thousands of jobs. The city has legions of jobless adults, which figured in the stubbornly high 9.4 percent unemployment rate in New York City even as Broadway, tourism and hotels rebound.
NYCHA represents a great opportunity to create work for public housing residents and other low-income workers under a too-often neglected Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program called Section 3. It requires that an impressive 15 percent of the labor budget on NYCHA construction contracts greater than $500,000 be set aside for housing residents, who complete at minimum a 10-hour construction course.
A NYCHA-focused work program would have the added benefit of directly involving public housing residents in improving their living conditions. And Section 3 kickstarted by infrastructure spending would result in training and new opportunities for marginalized Black and Latinx workers, who have a tortured history of exclusion from high-paying unionized construction trades, such as plumbing and electrical work.
Aside from public housing, there are some things Gov. Hochul and Mayor-elect Adams can do with the federal infrastructure dollars to address important transportation and safety issues. One would be cracking down on reckless drivers by reducing speed limits and working with Albany to expand installation of speed cameras. Gov. Hochul has suggested that the city should be allowed to install speed cameras without asking Albany for approval.
Staying with the issue of safety and making the city more people-friendly, Transportation Alternatives has floated an interesting idea: transform 25 percent of city streets into public spaces, such as bike lanes and new parks, by 2025. Adams, an avid cyclist who has vowed to become the city’s first “bike mayor,” has committed to building 300 miles of protected bike lanes.
Finally, the mayor-elect has also committed to building out 150 miles of bus lanes over four years and expediting the rollout of new traffic signal technology so buses aren’t left idling at red lights. He pledged to dedicate MTA capital funding to buy more electric buses until the entire fleet is converted.
Infrastructure may not be sexy, but here’s hoping the new leadership in Albany and at City Hall are willing to take bold action to fix it.
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, and a member of the MTA Board. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.