A plan to save NYCHA

Congress recently passed a budget deal that will decide how $80 billion will be allocated for federal priorities in the next two years. If Congress acts now, a crucial and cost-neutral program will help save public housing, and by extension, the New York City Housing Authority.

NYCHA is home to more than 400,000 New Yorkers, a population equal to the entire city of Atlanta. The families who depend on this vital housing earn, on average, about $23,000 per year. In a city with soaring rents, and where a new luxury building pops up seemingly every week, the housing authority offers low-income and working families in New York an affordable place to live.

However, decades of underfunding have left public housing properties across the country in disrepair, with a $26 billion backlog in needed improvements. NYCHA alone accounts for two-thirds of this capital backlog, while making up only 13 percent of the nation’s public housing stock. Its residents deserve a decent place to live, free of mold, with good indoor air quality, basic amenities like working toilets and stoves, and safety features to ensure children are protected.

It is overwhelmingly clear that we cannot rely solely on public funding to solve this problem. As the public housing stock continues to age, Congress has consistently cut funding. Since 2001, NYCHA has lost over $1 billion in federal capital investment. We are already losing public housing units to decay at an alarming rate, and without the ability to take advantage of innovative solutions, we could lose public housing altogether.

In 2011, former Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan, a native New Yorker, developed a solution that is already shaping the future of public housing funding - the Rental Assistance Demonstration program, one of the only options we have to preserve our at-risk public housing stock.

This initiative changes the way public housing is funded to a different federal source called Section 8 project-based funding. Section 8 is more stable, predictable and flexible than traditional public housing financing, and funding for this program, unlike capital investment in NYCHA, has actually increased over the last decade. Additionally, it allows public housing authorities to attract other proven, efficient federal financing tools like the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, which in turn leverages private capital, including private debt.

The Rental Assistance Demonstration program brings in $19 in additional public and private funds for every $1 invested by HUD. The program has already spurred $1 billion for capital repairs, bringing physical improvements and long-term financial stability to more than 18,000 homes for low-income families throughout the country. Without this initiative, we risk losing NYCHA to disrepair.

Despite the benefits of Rental Assistance Demonstration and the risk of doing nothing, for some the program is controversial. Bringing in private investment inevitably raises questions about tenant rights and protections. The Rental Assistance Demonstration program provides tenant protections and ensures that residents can remain in their homes, apartments are permanently affordable and that the housing authority retains control. The program is a means of preserving and improving housing opportunities for public housing residents, not taking anything away from them.

NYCHA is currently piloting the demonstration program in 1,400 apartments across 24 buildings at Ocean Bay in the Rockaways. The 54-year-old property is in need of $161 million worth of repairs, and the program will help finance the improvements to make these homes safe and livable. But to truly address our public housing financing needs, this pilot should be even more robust.

At present, Congress has a cap on the number of public housing apartments that can enter the Rental Assistance Demonstration program. Lifting or eliminating the limit on the number of apartments that can be converted under the program will allow more at-risk properties in New York and around the country to take advantage of this critical tool.

Congress must act now. Without solutions like Rental Assistance Demonstration that bring much needed capital dollars, NYCHA will struggle to stay afloat.

Ritchie Torres is a member of the New York City Council, representing District 15 in the Central Bronx and Chair of the Council’s Committee on Public Housing. Judi Kende is vice president and New York market leader for Enterprise Community Partners, Inc., a national organization that creates, preserves and advocates for affordable housing.