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Killing The Best Hope For Public Housing

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Killing The Best Hope For Public Housing

New York Post October 22, 2013
Urban PolicyOtherInfrastructure & TransportationNYC

It may be the last, best hope for public housing in the city, but it will need the support of the next mayor — and Bill de Blasio, up by 44 points in the latest poll over Joe Lhota, is against it. Too bad for New York’s 403,736 public-housing residents.

The problem: Gotham’s public housing, more than half a century old, is crumbling.

Fred Harris, real-estate chief at the New York City Housing Authority, told the Municipal Art Society last week it would cost NYCHA $17 billion to get its 2,596 buildings into a “state of good repair.” NYCHA racks up $3 million a day in maintenance bills.

The money “is not coming from the federal government,” Harris notes. And de Blasio is pushing his tax hike to pay for education, not public housing.

So NYCHA is trying to help itself. It wants to lease 14 empty lots at public-housing developments in prime Manhattan areas to developers (who are supposed to make “expressions of interests” by next month).

Builders would pay about $30 million to $50 million annually over 99 years for the right to build and manage 3,200 new apartments. NYCHA would use that cash to borrow $892 million and fix up public housing at the same sites.

It’s hard to see what’s wrong with this plan. It doesn’t kick out tenants; it makes their apartments nicer — and it doesn’t tear down historic buildings.

It would improve neighborhoods. Last century, master builder Robert Moses envisioned public housing as “towers in the park” — complexes devoid of stores and isolated from streets. This legacy means that as NYCHA picks land to develop, it can show a “strong preference for parking lots,” notes Harris, who rides his bicycle to meetings and sounds more like an urbanist than a bureaucrat.

Eleven of the sites NYCHA wants to develop are parking lots. Such lots make no sense, particularly at a place like the Frederick Douglass Houses, about a two-minute walk to three subway lines. Residents would be better off with new neighbors as well as new shops and restaurants — plus, again, renovations to their buildings.

The project doesn’t entail mass construction — no new superblocks here.

The “problem”: Only 800 of the new apartments would be affordable to moderate-income residents (people who earn about half the city’s average income).

The rest would be “market rate” — probably $3,000 a month for a one-bedroom.

That’s caused a political ruckus. Earlier this month, the City Council teamed up with the tenants associations of the Douglass and the Baruch houses to stop the plan. Their lawsuit complains that the plan violates NYCHA’s mission of providing affordable housing.

De Blasio sides with the tenant “advocates” (the left’s equivalent of Tea Party ideologues). He opposed the NYCHA plan during primary season. Monday, he repeated, “NYCHA land is not for luxury condos. Any . . . plan must include substantial amounts of affordable housing.” His pie-in-the-sky solution is to “rally the country’s cities around a new urban agenda in Congress for public housing.”

Sorry: The only way to help NYCHA’s poorer residents is to attract upper-income residents.

The people who live in new buildings will pay their own rent and subsidize public housing, too. Adding more apartments for lower-income residents would make the whole plan unaffordable — meaning no repair money and no new apartments for anyone.

And the people who live in market-rate rentals — not “luxury condos” — are hardly the 1 percent. They’re New York’s professional middle class.

If these newcomers couldn’t live in fake-wood-floor “luxury,” they’d be competing with poorer tenants for a smaller supply of private apartments.

But New York isn’t having much of a debate. Lhota “agrees with the concept” of NYCHA’s plan. But he’s hardly drawn much of a contrast.

Lhota should be pointing out that, in his “two New Yorks” tack, de Blasio is demonizing market-rate renters who have just as much trouble finding a place to live as everyone else in this town.

This piece originally appeared in New York Post

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