In rhetoric, and disrepair, NYCHA is de Blasio’s MTA

Politico New York
January 30, 2018

Its sorry state makes a mockery of New York City’s reputation as a world capital. Its eroding infrastructure and gross mismanagement have sparked months of damaging headlines. Its value to New York City is as incalculable as the cost of its repair.

And it is not Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s MTA. Or not just the MTA, at any rate.

The New York City Housing Authority, which runs the eroding public housing system that houses one in 14 New Yorkers, has become for Mayor Bill de Blasio much what the MTA has for Cuomo. Both men cite a lack of investment from others, both decry a history of mismanagement, and both have a fondness for blaming culprits outside of their own leadership circles for those ills that have befallen entities they effectively control.

Some now argue the failures and civic importance of both infrastructure entities have become an albatross for two politicians who lack the requisite resources, or will, to adequately deal with the problem.

“For riders of the transit authority, this past summer, it was the summer of hell,” said Letitia James, New York City’s public advocate. “For residents of public housing, it was the winter of hell.”

The parallels aren’t hard to find.

Cuomo, who for years failed to grapple with the MTA’s troubles, is now scrambling to solve them or, at least, to look like he’s trying to solve them. That scrambling involves continuing to argue — against accepted doctrine — that it’s actually de Blasio’s responsibility to fund the subway system.

De Blasio responds to Cuomo’s blame-shifting with outrage, then mimics it when it comes to NYCHA. Depending on the day, it is either the federal government or the Bloomberg administration or the state that bears much of the blame for NYCHA’s failure to accurately report its lead inspections, or for its malfunctioning boilers and collapsing ceilings.

When de Blasio named Shola Olatoye chair of NYCHA in 2014, he said it would be her job to convince the federal government to put more money into public housing, even though the federal government had been removing itself from that business for years.

“Part of her task will be to help us forge a coalition with cities and states around the country to start to change the rules of the game in Washington, because Washington cannot stay out of the housing business,” de Blasio said at the time.

If that was unrealistic under former President Barack Obama, it’s even more unrealistic under President Donald Trump.

“We should not hold out any hope that Washington is coming to the rescue,” said Rafael Cestero, a former city housing commissioner and current president of Community Preservation Corporation. “That dream has died.”

Nor should anyone expect the state to ride to de Blasio’s rescue, argued New York Institute of Technology professor Nicholas Dagen Bloom, author of the book Public Housing That Worked. Many upstate politicians, he said, regard both NYCHA and the MTA as predominantly New York City problems that the wealthy city can handle it on its own.

“I think the city is obviously going to have to do it,” he said in an interview.

Not everyone agrees. Cestero argued that because other public housing authorities in the state are also struggling, the state should in fact contribute more.

“I do think that we have reached the point where it is time for the city and the state to step up and provide resources to NYCHA and frankly other public housing authorities in the state,” he said.

That de Blasio and Cuomo have been so successful for so long in deflecting blame for their authorities’ problems is in good part a function of the authorities’ structure. An ostensibly independent board runs the MTA, but in reality, it’s run by the governor. Thanks to the federal government’s historic role in creating and funding public housing, the mayor can continue to argue that it should re-assume that historic responsibility, even though it hasn’t for years and shows no signs of changing course.

“The comparison doesn’t make sense,” de Blasio spokesman Eric Phillips said. “The City has made historic financial investments in NYCHA, despite it largely being a federal financial responsibility. And the Mayor’s owned and acted on problems large and small in our public housing.”

The situation is, nevertheless, enough to drive longtime government types crazy.

“There is a serious neglect in the physical infrastructure, whether it’s subways, whether it’s public housing, whether it’s roads, whatever it is,” said Dick Ravitch, the former MTA chairman who’s credited with resurrecting the system in the 1980s. At the turn of the century, he also co-chaired the congressionally authorized Millennial Housing Commission.

“When the chickens come home to roost, we’re going to be in deep, deep shit,” he said. “And it’s got to be written about.”

The numbers are, on their face, remarkable.

At least $25 billion — that’s the latest estimate for how much money NYCHA, the country’s largest housing authority, needs to fund all outstanding repairs at its 2,462 buildings that house more than 400,000 tenants. It’s also more than three times MTA Chairman Joe Lhota’s estimate of how much the MTA needs to make long-term repairs to the subways (that’s on top of the $836 million subway stabilization plan, and the MTA’s roughly $30 billion, five-year capital plan).

Their financial needs are, arguably, a simplistic way to think about the problem. Both authorities suffer from serious management issues. It’s apparent in the MTA’s inability to control costs on the now $12 billion Long Island Rail Road terminal under Grand Central, a project that was originally supposed to cost $3 billion . And it’s apparent in NYCHA’s inability to get its story straight on when and how it inspected NYCHA apartments for lead, apartments that housed young children — some of whom may now suffer from lead poisoning.

In the latest scandal to afflict the agency, the Department of Investigation said in a letter to Council Member Ritchie Torres that Olatoye gave false testimony before the City Council about the type of training received by workers inspecting for lead at NYCHA apartments.

De Blasio defended the NYCHA chief and cast doubt on the report.

“I don’t always believe the Department of Investigation has it right either,” de Blasio said, though he appointed the head of the Department of Investigation.

Certainly, neither Cuomo nor de Blasio is wholly to blame for the state of the subway system or NYCHA. That is also somewhat beside the point.

“That’s the way government works,” said Carol Kellermann, president of the nonpartisan Citizens Budget Commission. “People push problems off as long as they can. But [de Blasio] is on duty when the accumulated results of the disinvestment have started to be much more manifest, just the way the governor is experiencing the cumulative effect of the investment in, or lack of investment in, infrastructure.”

Asked to comment, Cuomo officials argued they had contributed plenty to the MTA, pointing to the governor’s promise to fund much of the MTA’s capital plan, and his willingness to pay for half of the subway system’s emergency action plan.

“We certainly agree that the Mayor must develop a competent plan to reverse the unacceptable and inhumane conditions prevalent in the City’s public housing system,” Cuomo spokeswoman Dani Lever said. “By any metric, the Governor does not have sole control of the MTA. Despite that reality, he hired experts to develop a comprehensive plan on how to stabilize and modernize the system and is actually putting up the money to pay for it.”

De Blasio has done more for NYCHA than previous mayors. He’s stopped requiring NYCHA to make a property tax payment and to reimburse the city for police services, saving the authority $100 million per year. He has given the authority another $100 million a year in capital payments.

But this pales in comparison to what the authority needs, and advocates and other elected officials are calling for more. City Comptroller Scott Stringer has proposed using Battery Park City revenue for public housing. Some advocates have called for $1 billion per year in capital money.

De Blasio has yet to endorse either proposal.

In the meantime, he’s setting aside roughly $1.3 billion per year to build or preserve 300,000 units of private affordable housing, set aside for lower- and middle-income families.

“What’s weird is there’s this wall between the affordable housing goals and NYCHA. … Preservation with NYCHA is still not being counted under affordable housing preservation,” NYIT’s Bloom said. “That is just unbelievable. I can’t understand that.”

At some point, of course, the comparisons fall apart.

There seems to be less momentum behind fixing NYCHA, compared to the subway system, for obvious reasons. NYCHA residents are often poor and disenfranchised. Everyone takes the subway.

“Everyone uses transit, so everybody cares,” said Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the right-leaning Manhattan Institute. “NYCHA is tougher because most New Yorkers aren’t NYCHA residents, the business world doesn’t care about it as much, and there is great resistance to any attempt to sell off assets like parking lots, etc. to raise money for existing housing.”

For those reasons, perhaps, NYCHA is arguably in even worse shape than the subway system.

“We need help,” said Danny Barber, the tenant association president of the Jackson Houses in the Bronx. “We don’t need just the federal government, the state government, the city government. We need all of them together.”

Should that help not be forthcoming, the very existence of the buildings will be at stake. Should they deteriorate so far they become dangerous and uninhabitable, the Department of Buildings could issue a vacate order.

“NYCHA’s situation is really a warning for the MTA in terms of the difficulties of digging out of this deferred maintenance hole when it goes on for too long,” said Moses Gates, the Regional Plan Association’s director of community planning and design.

In the meantime, the finger pointing continues.

“It’s a question of how and when and who steps up to the plate,” Kellermann said.