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Innovation Can Save Our Public Housing


Innovation Can Save Our Public Housing

New York Daily News June 26, 2013
Urban PolicyOtherInfrastructure & TransportationNYC

Some hope for NYCHA: A federal program to spark creative thinking

As readers of this newspaper are more aware than most, public housing in New York is in trouble. The largest system of its kind in the country is plagued by aging buildings and poor maintenance. It’s a situation that can seem hopeless — but now, with little fanfare, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development is poised to undertake a new approach that could redefine the “projects” for a new era.

We only need Congress to act.

Call it a “Race to the Top” for public housing — similar to the federal education program that’s encouraging reform by forcing states to compete for funds. The public housing equivalent is called “Moving to Work” and would combine a new way to help financially strapped agencies such as NYCHA with a new wave of imaginative approaches that have already been bubbling up outside Washington.

New Yorkers should hope that the city’s Housing Authority, by far the nation’s largest, is included.

Nationwide, public housing is home to 1.2 million households — and to serious problems. Deferred maintenance on its apartments is estimated at a staggering $27 billion ($6 billion in New York City alone).

Originally conceived as working-class housing — to be built through government financing but supported through its rents — it’s become home to the nation’s poorest families: the elderly, the disabled and single mothers. (Average income is just $13,000.)

In New York, the typical public housing household has been there more than 20 years. There’s usually little incentive to move. And because rent is fixed at 30% of income, earning more means paying more.

That’s led to what officials call “overhousing”: apartments with more bedrooms than people who need them — even as long waiting lists are endemic. It’s true for almost a quarter of New York’s public housing.

For years, liberals have been calling for more federal assistance to tackle maintenance problems, while conservatives (including me) have railed against housing assistance as a sort of unreformed welfare, due to its work disincentives and lack of a time limit.

Moving to Work could break the stalemate. Originally begun in the Clinton administration, it has permitted a handful (just 39 of some 3,000) of the nation’s housing authorities to experiment.

New approaches include funding reforms allowing authorities to direct their revenue where they think best, tenant time limits and more robust work requirements.

The highest-profile experiment has been in Atlanta, which replaced almost all its housing projects with vouchers and mixed-income new developments and imposed a work (or education) requirement. The percentage of public housing tenants in the workforce rose from less than 20% to 69%.

But over the years, broad expansion has been blocked in Congress, as liberals pushed for renewed investment and conservatives fought to expand a work focus to all authorities.

The new HUD plan offers hope for compromise. It would permit fresh flexibility for public housing agencies that demonstrate they are “high capacity,” meaning highly competent. There’s also a key new financing idea: Authorities could use federal aid to borrow in private financial markets — allowing for a new flow of capital investment.

The department’s summary of the idea also mentions “major rent reform, work requirements and time limits” — so long as there is “a focus on rigorously evaluating the impacts.”

New York should be at the forefront of such efforts, which could be tried in select properties. One assumes that HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, himself a Bloomberg administration alumnus, would want that. But NYCHA will have to show that is has “high capacity” — not easy for the troubled agency.

Mayoral hopefuls who focus on pushing for new, expensive subsidized housing would do better to realize the new opportunity to make better use of what the city already has.

This piece originally appeared in New York Daily News