In politics, the term “progressive” has come to mean always adopting new causes. Vision Zero, new affordable housing, LGBTQ rights, marijuana decriminalization and universal pre-K are all high on the list of priorities for progressive politicians like Mayor de Blasio.
As laudable as these programs are, the mayor and other progressives haven’t been as strong maintaining many of yesterday’s must-have social causes, including mass transit — and, most notably, public housing.
The New York City Housing Authority was born in the 1930s as a blue-chip progressive cause sought by all the city’s liberals, including Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. These progressives believed with all their hearts that clearing slums, and slum landlords, from the landscape of New York City would usher in a bright and shiny future of towers in green parks that would be free of crime and saloons. They wisely relied mostly on the federal and state governments to build their expensive vision.
For decades, public housing in New York thrived despite many social challenges. It was a cheap apartment in a good location in a very expensive city. Arguably, NYCHA was the best deal in town, even considering some dangerous neighbors or unreliable elevators. It was a big, insulated authority with lots and lots of federal cash. When the state and city failed to sustain contributions to NYCHA, federal subsidies covered the costs of operating projects that had been built by the city and state.
This public housing ecosystem, mostly sustained with federal cash, lasted for decades but began faltering in about 2000 due to changing political winds at the national level. Most of the problems we have today are the result of losing the federal government as the lead investor in NYCHA operations and capital needs. Billions have been lost, needs ignored, and it shows.
De Blasio, when asked about the continuing crisis at NYCHA, has expressed his determination that we should return to the good old days when the federal government supported NYCHA with far more robust financial support. He also wants to focus the media on shiny new causes like new affordable housing and Vision Zero.
But NYCHA is so big ( more than 400,000 people), and its problems so deep, that they threaten to block out all the good news. Gov. Cuomo, for instance, is capitalizing on NYCHA conditions to highlight what he considers to be the mayor’s poor leadership and management.
The first step for the city’s leadership is to acknowledge finally, after two decades of denial, that only city government has the political will and the funds to turn NYCHA around.
The mayor and his staff should start by looking at restructuring NYCHA as a city agency, through and through . New York State created an independent NYCHA in the 1930s to bulldoze slums, build new housing, issue bonds and take advantage of federal support. But in an era of federal decline, and when powers like slum clearance are no longer relevant, independence is a disadvantage. NYCHA is unable to make its case for access to city capital funds, as do typical city agencies, for achieving a long-term state of good repair systemwide. The dramatic improvements in the physical conditions of the city’ s K-12 schools are an example of what sustained city capital funding, creatively deployed, can accomplish.
The mayor should also get out on front with larger-scale conversions of public housing projects to private management, using a federal program called Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), which maintains low rent through the use of Section 8 subsidies. The thousands of Queens residents of converted units in NYCHA’s Ocean Bay project in the Rockaways are enjoying renovated apartments, new heating systems and other upgrades made possible by a successful public-private partnership.
Ocean Bay’s reinvention did not come cheap. It benefited from hundreds of millions of dollars in state and federal subsidies, including Superstorm Sandy recovery funds and federal tax credits, to bring the project to a better state. And while the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department has signaled its desire to shift as many public housing projects to RAD as possible, it is unclear if the federal government will provide adequate money for quality renovation.
The mayor, however, could divert some portion of his citywide Housing New York initiative, slice a portion of the city’s capital budget, or agree to use Battery Park City revenues to underwrite renovation. RAD isn’t the solution for every NYCHA project, but like charter schools, it can be an important program for residents who want dramatic changes and are willing to cast their lot with the private sector.
Making NYCHA work again needs to be a priority, if not for the residents, then for the legitimacy of modern progressivism. Old progressive causes need some love, too.
Bloom is associate professor of social science and chairman of interdisciplinary studies and urban administration at the New York Institute of Technology.