Meet the new public housing plan

May 28, 2015

Don Lash looks at Bill de Blasio's public housing plan and sees another area where the liberal leader is continuing the policies of old boss, Michael Bloomberg.

IN THE Democratic primary before the New York City mayoral election in 2013, Bill de Blasio drew a stark contrast between himself and then Mayor Mike Bloomberg with a narrative about the "tale of two cities."

The implication was that the city Bloomberg cared about was the overwhelmingly white, gentrified neighborhoods of affluent New Yorkers--and the tight community of Wall Street, real estate developers and corporate executives who formed the billionaire mayor's circle of peers.

De Blasio suggested that he, by contrast, would govern in the interest of all New Yorkers, including the majority non-white working class, and New Yorkers struggling with homelessness and housing insecurity. His victory was hailed by liberals such as Peter Beinart as heralding the "rise of the new left," a break with the neoliberal consensus that had narrowed the differences between Democrats and Republicans for decades.

Once De Blasio took office, however, his efforts to break with Bloomberg policies were stymied by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Republican-controlled state Senate--and by his own acceptance the city's massive inequality as an unchallengeable fiscal and political reality.

Bill de Blasio announces his affordable housing program at a press conference
Bill de Blasio announces his affordable housing program at a press conference

On one issue after another, from preferential treatment to charter schools to the abandonment of his proposed "mansion tax," de Blasio has good-naturedly accepted defeat and moved on to policies that more and more resemble those of Bloomberg.

Even the contracts that de Blasio negotiated with the public-sector labor unions that helped him get elected delayed retroactive pay raises owed to workers, weakened job security and embedded potential health care concessions--despite what were revealed to be incoming budget surpluses.

Any disappointment over Cuomo's opposition to his progressive agenda did not prevent de Blasio from doing his best as the loyal Democrat he is to ensure that Cuomo received the cross-endorsement of the Working Families Party, the self-professed alternative to the Democratic Party for New York progressives, during last November's election.

Increasingly, de Blasio's efforts to break with Bloomberg's policies and the neoliberal consensus have become symbolic. He embarked on a national tour to talk about income inequality and made a point of withholding his endorsement of the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, despite having worked on Clinton's 2000 Senate campaign.

Closer to home, however, de Blasio has more and more adopted policies that are barely distinguishable from those of the Bloomberg administration and his wealthy supporters. The most recent example is his plan to "save" public housing.

AFTER YEARS of federal cutbacks in support for public housing, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) faces operating deficits expected to reach $200 million by the end of the decade--at the same time as it lacks funds for an estimated $17 billion in needed capital improvements.

De Blasio, invoking his progressive role model Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, under whom NYCHA was created, declared his determination to preserve public housing in a plan to close the deficit.

Despite De Blasio's rhetoric, the plan hardly constitutes a renewed commitment to affordable public housing. NYCHA will increase collections from tenants who have fallen behind in their rent and squeeze higher fees from residents--including roughly tripling parking fees and stepping up collection of fees from families who install washers and dryers.

It will also revive a Bloomberg proposal initially rejected by De Blasio to turn over vacant land owned by NYCHA to private developers. The only funds that the city will contribute will come from foregoing "payments in lieu of taxes" (PILOTs) traditionally made by NYCHA to the city.

NYCHA houses over 400,000 people in the city in 178,000 apartments, and maintains a waiting list of over 150,000 more in need of affordable housing. NYCHA accounts for 8 percent of the city's housing stock, but more than half of the units renting for less than $800 per month.

The residential vacancy rate in New York City runs at about 3 percent, roughly a third of the national average--and for apartments truly affordable to low-wage workers, the vacancy rate is more like 1 percent. In contrast to other cities where disinvestment and deterioration have been accompanied by soaring vacancy rates and massive demolition of housing projects, public housing in New York remains fully occupied as it deteriorates.

In reality, the continued existence of public housing in New York City is not really in question. The conditions of the housing market dictate that public housing survives because the ruling elite requires a low-wage workforce, and people have to live somewhere.

Even those hostile to public housing projects and supportive of the idea of moving residents out of public housing and into private subsidized housing and then tearing down the projects--the centerpiece of the HOPE policies of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the 1990s--acknowledge that this "solution" cannot work in the New York City housing market.

De Blasio could have used this point to mobilize public support for his nearly forgotten proposals to tax the wealthiest New Yorkers. He could shift the priorities of development policies to end the wasteful corporate welfare subsidies and tax abatements enjoyed by corporations and developers, and invest the resulting revenue in protecting the existing NYCHA stock and building truly affordable housing.

INSTEAD, THE liberal mayor chose to balance the books on the backs of poor and working-class residents by squeezing higher fees out of them and increasing enforcement through the threat of eviction for non-payment. De Blasio also embraced the Bloomberg plan of stripping NYCHA of land--originally intended for community-controlled amenities such as play facilities and open green space--and turning it over to private developers.

De Blasio defends himself from the charge of flip-flopping on his opposition to the Bloomberg plan by pointing out that his scheme envisions a higher percentage of "affordable" housing. Instead of the 80/20 ratio of market-rate to affordable housing Bloomberg proposed, de Blasio proposes a 50/50 split.

But affordable is defined as up to 60 percent of area median income, meaning that a family of three could be earning roughly $46,000 annually. According to the data in the de Blasio plan, this is double the median income of NYCHA residents. Moreover, half of the units built would be market-rate, which will feed gentrification in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Gentrification is already increasing housing insecurity in neighborhoods with heavy concentrations of public housing, such as Mott Haven in the Bronx and East Harlem in Manhattan. These neighborhoods are among the latest to be "discovered" by gentrifying developers, and the de Blasio plan will create new opportunities for them.

The plan also features a privatization--described in the text as a "partnership"--which threatens the NYCHA workforce. The plan will move over 1,000 administrative employees off the NYCHA payroll to other city agencies, gradually closing out their positions through buyouts and attrition.

This will directly lead to the outsourcing of many of these jobs to nonprofits and other non-union contractors. Many of these workers directly serve the city's most vulnerable population at community and senior centers and youth programs in the Housing Authority projects. As District Council 37 Local 371 President Anthony Wells put it:

These workers have worked in our NYCHA centers their entire careers, and many of them live in public housing. They know the communities. They can relate to NYCHA residents. Our track record shows that dedicated NYCHA workers do this job better than outside contractors, who don't have the same level of training or accountability.

The irony is that these complaints echo the exact same problems that union leaders had with Mayor Bloomberg, who unabashedly advocated for privatizing as much of the public sector workforce as he could get his hands out. Despite promising to give labor a "seat at the table," de Blasio has adopted the same attitude toward the city workforce.

And just as under Bloomberg, it is the city's poorest--the largely Black and Latino residents of NYCHA projects--who will pay the price, along with the workers who serve them.

Peter Lamphere contributed to this article.

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