Public Housing Needs Our Support

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) owns and manages the city’s public housing, 179,000 apartments in 340 developments housing a half-million New Yorkers.  It provides affordable housing to families who, although over half have working members, otherwise could not afford to pay market rents and live in the city.  Public housing is a primary component of the city’s affordable housing infrastructure that helps keep New York a city with a mix of people with a broad range of incomes, rather than a place for just the rich and the very poor.

New York City has just managed a victory for more than a million workers – many of them low-wage workers - who toil without paid sick leave.  The City Council passed legislation mandating a certain number of paid sick days for working people.  It is the culmination of a three year struggle – including strong support from the Community Service Society.  It shows what can be done to change the lives of so many New Yorkers for the better.  

Meanwhile, NYCHA and our public housing are in serious financial trouble. Over the years, NYCHA has been starved for funds.  The federal government has been slowly getting out of the business of funding affordable housing.  The city and the state have turned their backs on NYCHA, even for operating support of public housing they financed.  As a result, NYCHA is in a serious deficit position, with an operating shortfall of $60 million a year and a $7 billion backlog in major capital improvements.  Its residents must endure accelerating deterioration and long waits for needed repairs.

Although NYCHA is taking steps to raise revenues — through private redevelopment in the midst of its communities — the city has to take some responsibility for seeing that public housing is improved and preserved.  This is not the time to expect more from Washington.  There are two major initiatives that the city should pursue.

First, NYCHA is required to pay the city nearly $100 million annually out of its federal operating funds, most of it for special police services that NYPD provides free of charge to private landlords.  This is a legacy of the Giuliani administration that the mayor could end simply by fiat.  That, alone, would cover the operating deficit. 

Secondly, the backlog of major improvements needed to stem deterioration could be significantly reduced with capital commitments from the city.  One obvious source of capital is the excess revenues generated by high-end housing developed in Battery Park City (BPC).  Owned and operated by the Battery Park City Authority, a public corporation created by the state in the 1970s, Battery Park City was originally conceived as a mixed income development.  Affordable housing was dropped from the BPC plan.  Instead, the deal was to use surplus revenues generated from BPC luxury housing to finance the building and rehabilitation of affordable housing in other city neighborhoods.

But for years, these funds were siphoned off into the city’s and state’s general fund on the pretext that they were needed to balance budgets.  In 2009, Governor Paterson said he needed the $270 million from Battery Park City revenue – a drop in the bucket - to help close a $15 billion deficit. It is time that BPC revenues were accounted for and committed as intended. They could be an ideal, reliable source of the capital NYCHA needs.   
New York City will elect a new mayor this year.  There are many candidates.  They should be asked what they intend to do about supporting public housing.  Do they have a plan or a vision?  Are they even focusing on public housing?  

The next mayor must immediately end the $100 million annual payments by NYCHA to the city.  This alone would go a long way to solving NYCHA’s immediate financial problems.  The city provides capital investments for sports stadiums, museums, and the performing arts.  It should increase its funding for public housing.  The next mayor must pledge to use surplus revenue from Battery Park City to construct and save public housing and other affordable housing.

The Community Service Society is sponsoring a mayoral candidate forum on Saturday, April 20th, that will focus entirely on NYCHA issues and the concerns of public housing residents.  It will be moderated by Michael Powell of The New York Times.  It is free to the public, but space is limited and we ask you to register either online or call 212-614-5365.

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