The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) sits on the precipice of seeking more private or public funding for its $40 billion bailout, and the next mayor will have to face addressing the capital needs of the country’s largest public housing network.
In a race that includes billionaires, millionaires, de Blasio cohorts, and artists alike, many are hoping for a grounded approach to funding homes where roughly 400,000 people live, 6,000 of whom live in Hope Gardens and Bushwick Houses, two large NYCHA complexes here in Bushwick.
As it stands, an Obama-era initiative — directed by now-mayoral hopeful Shaun Donovan — is in the midst of transitioning one-third of NYCHA units into private ownership under the moniker RAD/PACT (Rental Assistance Demonstration/Permanent Affordability Commitment Together.) The program (spearheaded, also, by Bill de Blasio) has been a repeated source of local political controversy but promises it will alleviate billions in government debt over the next decade and rebuild the decrepit living conditions of NYCHA’s portfolio. But tenants wonder if privatization will jeopardize their housing security, and are looking for the next mayor to rectify the negligence that has beleaguered the program for decades.
In the beginning, handsome NYCHA buildings jutted toward the sky; rising far above the compact single and multi-family homes of early 20th-century Brooklyn. Their grounds sprawled with verdant greenery and manicured shrubbery, its loam pocked with tennis and handball courts. Within their facilities, families relied on community newspapers, daycare centers, and nurseries. They were said to be comparable if not better than the middle-class homes of the era. Filled almost entirely with white working-class families, these buildings promised to cure the unhygienic living conditions of tenements that had besieged New York City for nearly a century.
By 1964, NYCHA had halted the practice of holding units for white families. As the 60s turned into the 70s, and the body of NYCHA residents diversified, the government became less interested in maintaining those buildings. Mold spored from ceilings, lead paint peeled in children’s bedrooms, gas stoves served as the only source of heat for winter, and the quality of life for many residents sloped at an alarming rate.
Today, as the de Blasio administration wraps up a contentious run, NYCHA is among the most heavily affected programs of his tenure. During his leadership, public housing sank itself even deeper into a financial pitfall, structures crumbled, and lead levels were obfuscated. With his backing of RAD/PACT, tens of thousands of units have been given the O-K to convert and have left as many families at risk of housing insecurity. At the start of his mayoralty, NYCHA’s capital needs were estimated to be $17 billion; today, that figure has doubled. Some critics say that what private ownership fails to address is the underlying issue of inequity and government mismanagement, opening the door to displacement further down the road.
Joycelyn Taylor, an independent contractor who is running for mayor, talked with Bushwick Daily about growing up in NYCHA building. “We were the only black family in our building when I was born there in ‘66,” Taylor told us. Hoping to restructure the management of NYCHA entirely, she sees promise in a public bailout. “Keep public housing public,” she said.
In regards to whether she believes RAD/PACT will be a positive transition for residents, Taylor says she’s disheartened that privatization is the best the city can come up with. For Taylor, the answer is a no-brainer. “I’ve already written a letter to Biden and Harris asking them to allocate the appropriate funds.”
She’s echoing legislation that Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez introduced in January, seeking to divert $70 billion from the most recent stimulus bill to be allotted to revitalize public housing on a national scale. Velazquez’s bill specifically calls for the full $40 billion needed by NYCHA for capital repair needs to come from that fund, thus, in turn, keeping the program public. Another local congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, as well as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, are among those co-sponsoring the bill.
Louis Flores, who leads a tenant advocacy group called “Fight For NYCHA” told Bushwick Daily that this is “a once in a century opportunity.” Flores says that Velazquez’s legislation is a “blessing” and an unprecedented light at the end of a tunnel. When asked about how NYCHA can dig itself out of the hole, he said “we have an easy answer right now. [Chuck] Schumer has offered to put in all the funding from Biden’s Stimulus Bill. Now the other mayoral candidates need to coalesce and pressure de Blasio to support it.”
Taylor says the money is needed. “I’m not afraid of the $40 billion number,” she said. “We see the results of the [de Blasio] administration. I went to NYCHA buildings in every borough — you can see the lack of care when you go inside.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum is a mayoral candidate with an altogether different NYCHA experience: Shaun Donovan himself. (Though Donovan’s team responded to a request for comment, they have not yet gotten back to us with answers to our written questionnaire.)
Mr. Donovan made waves for his part in pushing NYCHA towards the privatized route through RAD, a program that gives tax abatements to landlords who take over public housing buildings. These buildings are then renovated from top to bottom and often increase evictions. At the Ocean Bay apartments in Queens, after privatization, evictions jumped totwice the rate of their public-funded counterpart. Donovan has also drawn criticism for the obfuscation of lead levels, water leaks, and decrepit living conditions in NYCHA buildings while he served as Secretary of HUD from 2014 to 2017.
As for the other candidates, front-runner Andrew Yang wants to utilize TPA (Tenant Participation Activity) funds to bridge the deficit, Eric Adams envisions a New York where NYCHA sells air rights to source its capital repairs, and Maya Wiley details a plan that sees a financial czar coordinating efforts to budget for public housing. But for all of their creativity, none of them have joined the concerted efforts in Washington to secure the money it will take to fix complexes such as Bushwick Houses and Hope Gardens.
For Flores, this moment is crucial in saving not only the hundreds of thousands of residents of public housing, but the city as a whole. “This is what I tell everyone when they ask why keeping NYCHA public is so important,” he said. “Because 400,000 people – probably more – live in those apartments. Over 50 percent of them have jobs, and the others have fixed incomes. There is no housing provider in New York City big enough to absorb this amount of people, who will cap rents at 30 percent of their income. There will be nowhere else for them to go,” he asserted. “Forgiving people for late rents isn’t leniency, it’s humanity,” Flores added.
With 2021 eerily mirroring Depression-era New York City, replete with a housing crisis and a pandemic behind it, this year’s race will serve as a historic step towards equality. And with a race that’s still overflowing with ambition, it’s important to note that it will take more than a miracle to save NYCHA: it’ll take some courage on the part of the city’s politicians.
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