Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled a plan last week to turn the New York City Housing Authority around. It lays out a broad-based assault on a huge problem: the rotten condition of the 328 public-housing developments that more than 400,000 New Yorkers call home.
To succeed, Mr. de Blasio needs to find a ton of money, and then put it where his mouth is. The Housing Authority has an operating deficit of $98 million this year, and its unmet cost of maintenance and repairs totals more than $16 billion. That staggering sum is what will be needed just to get roofs replaced, stairs rebuilt, elevators fixed, mold and lead paint removed, among many other things.
Mr. de Blasio and the authority’s chairwoman, Shola Olatoye, have proposed an array of reforms to save money and increase revenue, like digitizing records, improving rent collection (the authority now only gets 74 percent of the rent and fees it is owed), and charging tenants more for parking. Other ideas include relieving some of the authority’s operating and payroll expenses, and using $3 billion in federal disaster funding to repair and fortify authority buildings damaged by Hurricane Sandy.
All these things will help — around the edges. The closest thing to a game changer is the mayor’s plan to turn over vacant Housing Authority property, in places like parking lots, to private developers for new apartment buildings, with a significant portion of the units set aside for affordable housing. This is a variation of a plan floated by his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, who wanted to develop the authority’s unused property with an 80/20 ratio of market-rate apartments to affordable ones.
Many public housing tenants were dubious of the Bloomberg plan, seeing in it an elitist scheme to sell their views, breathing room and parking space to developers and gentrifiers. Mr. de Blasio will surely face the same objections, but is hoping that a richer affordability equation — 50-50, with half the units charging rents affordable to those making up to 60 percent of the area’s median income — will ease resistance while still generating enough revenue to begin lifting the authority out of its deep financial hole. He’s also planning to provide land at three housing projects, in Brooklyn and the Bronx, for private developers to build 10,000 low-rent apartments, to add to his goal of building 80,000 affordable units in the next 10 years.
This new construction could generate hundreds of millions of dollars in operating revenue and developers’ fees, which would be an encouraging beginning for a revitalized Housing Authority. Mr. de Blasio says his plan will knock $4.6 billion from the authority’s $16 billion in capital-spending needs, and generate a cumulative operating surplus of more than $200 million in the next decade. That’s all promising, if true. But it should be clear that the ongoing toll of decades of underfunding, bad management and neglect will continue be a drain on the city, and a perplexing challenge, for many years and mayors to come.
Of all the monumental tasks that Mr. de Blasio has set for his administration, none may be more important than saving the New York City Housing Authority. Its apartments are high-rise, brick-and-mortar insults to the very idea of a city committed to equality and dignity for the working class and poor.
But only when tenants begin to see significant repairs made, with visible improvements in their living spaces and surroundings, and tangibly more competent and responsive management, will it be possible to say the mayor’s ambitious plan is on the right track.