Governor Cuomo, New York's public housing infrastructure needs our attention

The Trump administration has threatened deep federal cuts that will set back New York City’s public housing by a decade, to a time when the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) ran up annual operating deficits of hundreds of millions of dollars and escalated its capital improvement backlog to the current $17 billion estimate. NYCHA already expects federal cuts of $35 million this year. Now more than ever, we must count on the state and city for urgent infrastructural improvements to their single largest affordable housing resource – 178,000 apartments in 328 developments, with a resident population of over 500,000, larger than Atlanta.

Some progress has been made in recent years. This year NYCHA cleared its operating deficit. In 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio relieved NYCHA of over $100 million in required annual payments to the city for police services and property taxes. In 2015, he committed $300 million of the city’s capital budget over three years to critically needed roof replacements that stem the multiple leaks down the line and the toxic mold they generate. In 2016, an additional $75 million was allocated to improving crumbling facades.

In January 2017, the mayor’s preliminary budget allocated an additional $1 billion in its capital budget to roof replacements over the next decade. That sum was clearly not enough, but a significant start that breaks through the “firewall” that made NYCHA a stepchild to the mayor’s multi-billion Housing New York Plan for building and preserving affordable housing in the private sector, as outlined in a just-released Community Service Society report, Public Housing: New York’s Third City.

As Washington tightens the budget screws on domestic programs, our eyes must also turn to the state to address the capital backlog and restore decent living conditions for NYCHA residents. The state bears substantial responsibility for the situation NYCHA is in. In 1998, when Gov. George Pataki terminated operating subsidies to NYCHA’s 15 state-financed developments (16,000 units) ineligible for federal subsidies, the authority was left with an operating shortfall of $60 million annually. The cumulative shortfall through 2010, when these developments were federalized, amounted to $720 million, which NYCHA had to cover by tapping operating reserves, transferring federal capital subsidies to operations, and cutting staff.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has moved forward soaring infrastructural proposals – Penn Station, the JFK Airport, the Tappan Zee Bridge, the Second Avenue subway. And last year he announced an ambitious $20 billion affordable housing initiative over the next five years. But his record on restoring NYCHA’s infrastructure is weak.

To his credit, in 2015 Cuomo allocated $100 million in bank settlement funds to NYCHA improvements, in part in response to hundreds of NYCHA residents who rallied in Albany for a long-term commitment of $1 billion over 10 years. NYCHA proposed the funds be used for roof replacement. But, in a surprising move, the governor set aside the proposal and instead distributed the funds piecemeal to legislators, $2 million to each district, for needed, but marginal improvements, such as landscaping, playground and security equipment and appliances. Meanwhile, major infrastructural improvements were discouraged.

Resident leaders and advocates will be in Albany again, demanding a long-term Marshall Plan for NYCHA – at least a billion dollars over the next five years for major improvements to their aging buildings. With $17 billion dollars in unspent bank settlement funds, and multi-billion dollar capital commitments to affordable housing, the governor should turn his attention to the abysmal condition under which NYCHA residents live and help restore what was once the nation’s premium public housing program.

David R. Jones, Esq., is president and CEO of the Community Service Society; Afua Atta-Mensah is executive director of Community Voices Heard.