Op Ed Housing

Build out the NYCHA infill

Use spare land to aid public housing

April 26, 2019

Read the original op-ed here.

Business as usual will not improve the living conditions of the New York City Housing Authority’s 400,000 residents. Years of underfunding, deferred maintenance, and mismanagement have left NYCHA’s tenants to suffer from lead and mold exposure, broken elevators, heating outages, leaky roofs and other conditions that affect health and quality of life. Repairing NYCHA’s buildings and apartments requires $32 billion over the next five years, or $180,000 per apartment. The status quo will leave NYCHA in such bad fiscal shape that in a decade 90% of its apartments may not even be worth repairing.

Last December, NYCHA and city officials announced NYCHA 2.0, a bold plan to fix public housing, which includes many ideas recommended by the Citizens Budget Commission. In addition to transferring NYCHA’s public housing units to more stable and lucrative federal funding streams and addressing managerial shortcomings, NYCHA 2.0 takes advantage of one of NYCHA’s most valuable assets: land. And, this part of the plan is entirely within the city’s control.

The idea behind this development strategy, called Build to Preserve, is simple. By facilitating mixed-income development on underutilized NYCHA land and selling NYCHA-owned development rights, NYCHA can raise $3 billion to repair its apartments. In human terms, this strategy could support repairs for 30,000 residents without any displacement.

The mayor and NYCHA are championing this strategy, and it is worthy of support. But this strategy may be at risk, with lawsuits and tenant fears potentially slowing down this effort. Yet, the stakes are too high to let this fail.

The key to reaching the $3 billion potential is including sufficient market-rate units in any new development. The greater the portion of market rate units, the more a developer is willing to pay NYCHA for development rights. Requiring a greater share of affordable housing makes the land less valuable to developers and generates less revenue for NYCHA. A rental building with 20% its units set aside for low-income tenants—“an 80/20 project”—would raise nearly three times as much revenue as a similar-sized building with 50% affordable units.

To date NYCHA has taken only modest steps in pursing infill development, in large part due to resistance by local elected officials. These delays have cost NYCHA millions in revenue and allowed the developments that would have benefited from repairs to deteriorate further.

For example, a planned 50/50 project at Holmes Towers will raise $25 million in revenue but is being slowed due to a lawsuit to force the project to go through a lengthy approvals process. NYCHA is pursuing similar deals at Cooper Park, Wyckoff Gardens, and LaGuardia. Another proposal at Harborview Towers with up to 75% market rate units would have raised millions for repairs, but it now appears to have been postponed. These developments alone need $469 million in funding over the next five years. If the sites remain undeveloped, they will generate no revenue and NYCHA’s buildings will suffer.

Elected officials and community members should support ambitious developments on NYCHA property that generates new housing and funding for NYCHA. The recent proposal for development at the Fulton Houses would replace several aging public housing buildings, build new affordable units, and raise enough revenue to repair the remaining units – all without sacrificing public ownership, long-term affordability, or displacing a single resident. The Fulton Houses proposal can be a model for preserving public housing for the long haul.

Tenants should not be forced to endure poor living conditions while they wait for the federal government to change course and reverse its chronic underfunding of public housing. NYCHA and city officials can raise billions in private capital for repairs while maintaining public ownership and permanent affordability. The price of inaction and delays is clear: costs will continue to rise, residents will remain in substandard housing, and units increasingly will pass the point of at which they can be repaired.