Tuesday, April 16, 2013

An answer for NYCHA's troubles

Our political office holders, assuming that there's no alternative to the NYCHA leasing scheme, are left complaining about the lack of "community process" on how to implement the infill leasing plan. But there is an alternative. 

Here's an op ed I wrote for Bowery Boogie explaining what the city and state can and should do. That they haven't done this suggests to me that the state has no faith in the future of public housing. That's scary. 
(Bowerygals' comment on Boogie's site is also a must read.)

There’s been a furor over NYCHA’s plan to lease so-called underused properties to private developers, but there have been few alternative solutions offered. While everyone complains, the NYCHA tenants continue to suffer from hurricane damage and inadequate management. So complaints without solutions just won’t cut it.
Everyone on all sides agree that if the city would properly fund NYCHA, there’d be no need for this leasing scheme. And many are ready to fight to get that funding today. That’s heartening.
But it’s not the solution. Getting the funds today might be possible in this election year amidst the noise that the leasing scheme has raised, but what about next year, when it’s not a city election cycle year and the locals have forgotten all about NYCHA? Fighting for the funding means NYCHA tenants get services one year in every four. In between, they’ll be literally left in the cold.
NYCHA needs a steady, dedicated revenue stream protected from changing political winds, revenue that won’t be syphoned away from NYCHA and its tenants. And it needs a transparent process that will guarantee that the funds won’t disappear into someone’s personal pockets.
The current leasing scheme fails to meet that need from the start. The profit derived from the new market-rate units will go straight into private pockets by right, without even any political corruption or subterfuge. NYCHA is giving its own potential revenue away. Handing the people’s public property into private hands for their personal profit is the opposite of good government. It’s a travesty.
Why doesn’t NYCHA ask the state to intervene, construct the market-rate units itself, and give them to NYCHA? The state loves to construct — prisons, schools, more prisons. It’s easy for the state: issue a bond, the funds go to the huge construction industry, a state favorite, with lots of jobs. And market-rate housing yields a fast return, so why not? Years ago, when I sat on the CUNY Board of Trustees, I watched the state cut the tax-levy budget to shreds, but I never once saw the state deny a capital construction item.
That the city hasn’t asked and the state hasn’t offered suggests to me that neither really wants to save NYCHA housing at all. A 99-year lease will not generate enough for NYCHA’s needs in the future. Luxury housing might, if it were owned by NYCHA, not a private developer.
Should the state get into the business of luxury housing? Consider why government is viewed as a shabby landlord. Government is capable of managing quite well — look at libraries, rec centers and parks, all widely used. But when it comes to housing, government owns only low-income housing. It’s a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy. If the state owned the Upper East Side, it would be rolling in dough and well able to maintain those properties with plenty to spare to keep up its low-income properties in style. But it doesn’t own upscale properties with surplus revenue and, let’s be honest, the city just doesn’t care about its low-income residents. Certainly that’s been true under the current city administration, its mayor and city council leadership.
The new market-rate housing would rob space and air and light. NYCHA must at the very least compensate for those losses with improvements in the remaining spaces so that they are better used and more appealing. More troubling is the danger of upscaling local commerce, outpricing the low-income tenants. NYCHA has to address all these issues as well. I wonder whether the NYCHA tenants would accept these as conditions:
  1. The state should issue bonds to build the market-rate units, giving the units to NYCHA so all the profits stay in NYCHA and benefit the subsidized tenants
  2. NYCHA should hire a decent architect (there are plenty of brilliant young designers aching to solve urban challenges) to redesign the remaining open spaces to make them greener and better used,
  3. The city should subsidize a percent of the commercial space specifically for low-income consumer services
  4. Let the current tenant community set out ground rules for public use — music, noise-making (upscale partiers make a lot of noise), barbeques and such — to minimize conflicts between the new and the old.
How to ensure a transparent process that will prevent corrupt officials from stealing NYCHA funds is tough one. It’s a challenge that has to be met no matter what NYCHA chooses to do.

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