Wednesday, April 17, 2013

What's really wrong with the NYCHA plan

The complaints about NYCHA's infill losing park and air space are difficult for me to identify with. I grew up in Manhattan in a high-density urban street environment, like most Manhattanites. As a child I enjoyed that streetscape at least as much as the local public park. We played handball and boxball on the sidewalk, running around in alleyways, climbing fences. Still today I prefer to walk uptown on 1st Avenue, dull as it is, rather than walk through Stuy Town, which feels like a pristine, landscaped, anti-urban gated community. To me, the tenement street wall is attractive, comforting, neighborly and conducive to community, just as I far prefer tenements to the anonymity of elevator building compexes or the isolation of single family houses. 

So I was gratified to hear GOLES director Damaris Reyes' response last night to NYCHA's presentation to Community Board 3. She jumped on the real danger of the infill scheme: the dilution of the political base in the projects and its likely consequence, the erosion of political will to maintain the NYCHA tenants. Amidst all the NIMBY concerns -- one white gentleman with the most beautiful brown shoes I've ever seen, worried that the new rich tenants might crowd his child out of the better local public schools, a worry that drove home to me, no prejudice to him or his honest issue, just how far this community has changed -- Reyes was almost alone in speaking to the social issue of preserving the community. Bernard Marti also faced that issue, but he spoke in favor of the infill plan, expressing his hope that it would help the NYCHA properties so desperately in need of help. Everyone else demanded a better community process, which seems to me a diversion. We already know what the problem is -- the state has no commitment to public housing. How is a "community process" going to change that? 

You might object that, even without the infill, this neighborhood is developing and gentrifying anyway -- it's just a matter of time, and this infill will at worst speed it up by a few years. That's too coarse-grained an analysis. The poltical base here has remained in the older residential demographic despite demographic upscaling partly because the local housing stock of tenements is ill suited to permanent or family housing, and ideal for transient students and young singles. So the PS 64 transformation into a dorm will bring a lot of youth commerce (bars), but will not change the political base -- most students don't vote. The infill market-rate housing will bring permanent resident voters. 

I asked the NYCHA presenters privately why the state won't build the market-rate housing and give the profits to NYCHA rather than let a private developer build and own it and reap the profit. They explained that the state simply won't touch public housing. This is plain deceit on the part of the state: it builds prisons, and there's no question that prisons are, among other things, public housing, except it doesn't generate market-rate rental revenue. 

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