Making an affordable housing crisis worse

Don Lash looks at the impact of the Sandy disaster on New York's public housing.

Public housing in lower Manhattan during the power outage following Sandy (Jonathan Percy)Public housing in lower Manhattan during the power outage following Sandy (Jonathan Percy)

IN THE days immediately following Hurricane Sandy, city, state and federal officials congratulated each other on their preparedness and quick response and made optimistic projections about when things would "get back to normal."

Mayor Michael Bloomberg proudly rang the bell to open the New York Stock Exchange on October 31, two days after Sandy hit, and his press conferences were dominated by discussions of when power would be restored to lower Manhattan, when the subway lines would resume regular operations--and, of course, why the New York City Marathon should take place as scheduled (Bloomberg, under pressure, finally canceled the Marathon).

It was some days before the media began to pay sustained attention to the devastation in working-class communities on Staten Island, the Rockaway peninsula and other low-lying neighborhoods--and even longer before the horrific living conditions within affected public housing projects was reported.

Initially, the tabloid press treated public housing residents as a threat to be contained. A report from the New York Daily News highlighted stories about Staten Islanders arming themselves to protect their homes from "thugs" from the projects.

Not a single such case was documented in the article, but Daily News reporters nevertheless collected quotes from people who had heard rumors about an invasion of looters from the projects. The reporters apparently felt it unnecessary to set foot in public housing or speak to any public housing residents about the question.

As the stories of public housing residents have begun to break through, thanks in large part to alternative media, it has become clear that these residents continue to suffer the effects of the storm.

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) estimated that 20 percent of its residents, some 80,000 people, lost power during the storm. Many lost heat and hot water, and some lost water altogether. Thousands of elderly or disabled residents in high-rise buildings found it nearly impossible to come and go from their apartments. It took 16 days for NYCHA to be able to make the claim that all residents had electrical power--and even then, many units were getting power from generators, meaning that heat and hot water were still out in many buildings.

The city's short-term response was inadequate, to say the least. Residents trapped in their buildings in Red Hook saw volunteers from Occupy Sandy days before the city mobilized door-to-door relief efforts.

In housing projects in Red Hook, Coney Island, the Rockaways and elsewhere, the storm surge destroyed boilers and other mechanical systems in basements. NYCHA residents report that the agency has not been forthcoming about the time frame for repairs or replacements. The agency has said in general that it will take from three months to a year to make major systems fully operational in all buildings.

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WHAT HAS become evident is that the Sandy disaster has worsened the affordable housing crisis in New York City.

Early estimates were that 30,000 to 40,000 displaced residents would be in need of housing--close the number that the city already shelters in public facilities. And this doesn't include those who are staying with family or friends, but who are still be in need of housing.

Approximately 200 homes have already been bulldozed as a hazard in their current condition, and the city plans to bulldoze at least 200 more, with another 500 being inspected to determine whether they are inhabitable.

The city lives with a shortage of affordable housing in the best of times. The national average vacancy rate for rental housing is about 8 percent this year--in New York City, it's 3 percent, and less than 1 percent for units costing less than $800 per month. In fact, the city's vacancy rate has never risen above 5 percent at any point in the past five decades.

The steady decline of federal housing assistance in the form of Section 8, coupled with city policies favoring gentrification, have made the problem worse. There are currently over 160,000 applicants on a waiting list for public housing owned and operated by NYCHA.

The population in the city's homeless shelters had spiked to over 46,000 in the month before Sandy, and that doesn't count families and individuals doubled up or living in other insecure arrangements, or people living on the streets or in the subways. The city, which represents 4 percent of the U.S. population, includes 14 percent of the nation's homeless population.

New York's response has been to reverse NYCHA policy, which had previously been to maintain a "working families preference." Now, the agency gives priority on the waiting list to families in the shelter system. There is no doubt about the need of these families for affordable housing, but the consequence has been even longer waiting times and increased housing costs for other families.

What's more, because the median household income of new NYCHA residents is falling, revenue is falling, too--because rent is set at 30 percent of adjusted household income. Meanwhile, the federal government has reduced operating subsidies. Therefore, NYCHA, which operates some of the oldest projects in the nation, faces increasing maintenance costs to operate aging units of housing, with declining resources.

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THE STRIPPING away of money from affordable public housing isn't a new trend. Ronald Reagan--who at one public event famously greeted his own Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary as "Mr. Mayor", apparently having no idea who he was--began the budget-cutting mania for federal housing programs. Under George H.W. Bush, federal housing efforts were geared toward home ownership for a lucky few, rather than ensuring an adequate supply of decent, affordable housing.

Not to be outdone, Bill Clinton announced the "reinvention" of HUD, and programs were consolidated and cut. In many cities and communities, public housing was razed and replaced with mixed-income housing, resulting in a net reduction in the number of affordable units.

By this point, public housing had few defenders, since the bulk of public housing units and projects were poorly designed and constructed to begin with, and had suffered from years of neglect. Promises to replace public housing with rental subsidies were never met on the scale that would have been necessary to meet the need. Under George W. Bush, the trickle of subsidies nearly dried up altogether, and the Obama administration has done nothing to address the long-term supply of affordable housing.

So far, beyond requests for massive federal aid, there has been little said publicly about how the city will deal with the post-Sandy housing crisis in the context of a permanent shortage of affordable housing.

Three years ago, recognizing that the post-Katrina model of massive relocation and house trailers wouldn't work in New York City, the city's Office of Emergency Management sponsored a design competition to plan for the aftermath of a massive flood hitting a hypothetical low-income neighborhood in New York City. The ideas submitted included modular housing on super-barges, and the agency chose some winners--but nothing further was done to make any of the plans operational.

Public housing residents in projects most impacted by Sandy have begun to speak out in protest of the lack of response and information. Residents from different housing complexes have been working together and coordinating rallies and press campaigns, demanding that the city begin to treat public housing tenants with greater respect--and that the NYCHA be held accountable for restoring basic services.

The pressure from public housing residents has been successful in getting NYCHA to reverse itself by putting a temporary hold on eviction notices and court actions for non-payment of rent, and to offer a rebate on rent charged for days when essential services weren't provided.

But Sandy has added urgency to the need for much more action--above all, investment in affordable housing. Placing the homeless in existing housing stock in NYCHA developments is no substitute for increasing the supply of affordable housing for working class families.

The failure to allocate resources to housing development in a city that found billions to provide new homes to the Yankees, Nets and Islanders is a scandal, but also an ongoing one--the truth is that the city routinely gives subsidies in the form of tax abatements to developers of upscale "market rate" housing built by the city's richest developers.

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AFTER HURRICANE Katrina, public housing in New Orleans was essentially destroyed, with thousands of units demolished. When these units are added to those shut down before the storm, New Orleans saw about 85 percent of its public housing disappear in a decade.

Because HUD "replaced" these units with a smaller number of affordable units in mixed-income developments, few former residents were re-housed, and the New Orleans Housing Authority maintains a waiting list on which most families can expect to remain for decades.

It would be very difficult for New York City to get away with a New Orleans-style frontal assault on public housing. NYCHA is its own small city, with 178,000 apartments in 340 projects, consisting of 2,600 buildings on 2,500 acres of real estate. While Bloomberg and city officials may dislike the concept of public housing--and while they certainly don't care about the well-being of residents--they would probably face insurmountable obstacles to getting rid of 85 percent of it.

Even the right-wing Manhattan Institute acknowledges this. In a New York Post article, Nicole Gelinas, a writer for the think tank, argued that what "worked" in New Orleans--massive relocation--can't be replicated in New York City. Gelinas drew this conclusion not because of any moral qualms about gutting public housing, but because New York remains "open for business"--and a functional city requires a workforce, including those in need of affordable housing, that can keep showing up for work.

This doesn't mean that public housing in New York City is safe--far from it.

For one thing, certain housing projects could be more vulnerable in the wake of Sandy--like those on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which lost power and suffered damage. The storm could provide an attractive excuse for closing down projects that are located on land coveted by real estate developers.

More generally, the underinvestment in maintenance and capital improvements will continue to threaten the long-term viability of the NYCHA's housing stock. Financial pressure caused by the austerity agenda will increase the attractiveness of the city's existing privatization scheme, which involves selling off vacant land to for-profit developers. The cost of the damage from Hurricane Sandy will undoubtedly be cited as yet another reason to go forward with these plans to strip assets from NYCHA projects, with no participation by residents in planning how they will be used.

The energy that is going into volunteer relief efforts for NYCHA residents has been essential--thanks to the efforts of thousands and thousands of people, a void left by the city's indifference has been partially filled.

It will be vital to sustain that energy when the issue is no longer emergency relief, but instead the chronic and worsening shortage of affordable housing. Even before Sandy, NYCHA deferred billions of dollars worth of necessary capital improvement projects because it didn't have the money, and tenants routinely report waits of up to a year for repairs, frequent breakdowns of elevators in high-rise buildings, unresponsive building management and common areas that are dirty and poorly lit.

The intolerable neglect of a sizable sector of the city's population is not a "Sandy problem." Sandy just made it visible to everyone else.