Unwelcome Mat

New Public Housing Rules Shun the Poorest New Yorkers

The Quality Housing Act comes as NYCHA itself is undergoing change. It is awaiting a Washington, D.C., agreement on HUD's ever-dwindling budget. It has a new chair, John G. Martinez, appointed in April after former chair Ruben Franco resigned. It must continue to operate for two more years under a complicated court settlement intended to rectify its years-old practice of racially steering applicants. It is planning its first major demolition. And it is inching toward privatization, a move that is in sync not only with the mood of Congress but also of City Hall, which appoints NYCHA's three-member board.

All of this, of course, plays out against the backdrop of a city with a decades-long housing emergency and a real estate market that has sent prices into the stratosphere.

"The intersection of things couldn't be worse," says CSS president David Jones. "There's welfare reform, HUD is retrenching, and Rudy Giuliani is moving away from the mission of housing the very poor. The script is already being written for an '80s-style growth in homelessness."

Roger Tyson sleeps on this park bench while he awaits a NYCHA apartment.
photo: Michael Sofronski
Roger Tyson sleeps on this park bench while he awaits a NYCHA apartment.

And that is something that Roger Tyson knows about. "The politicians make all these rules that sound good to their constituents, but this is unbelievable," Tyson said recently, sitting on a park bench that would later double as his bed. "The real question is, where you going to live? Where are poor people going to go?"

The outcry at NYCHA's September hearing began when the audience heckled NYCHA chair Martinez during his welcoming speech and ended three hours— and 45 speakers— later when moderators unplugged the mike of one tenant who called the three-member NYCHA board devils. In between, they were also labeled "the new Hitlers," their plans "snake in the grass . . . conniving," and their goal nothing short of "genocide." Hearing them, one wouldn't think the speakers were talking about a housing system where they actually wanted to live.

Yet even the most strident critics made this point: NYCHA is an essential and in fact preferred housing stock for millions of low-income New Yorkers. As Anne Johnson, a 31-year resident of Bernard Baruch Houses on the Lower East Side, put it, "Public housing saved my life." She vowed to file a class-action suit to guarantee it will remain available.

The fact is, NYCHA has a reputation as not only the biggest but also one of the best public housing authorities in the country. With 181,000 units in 344 developments, NYCHA makes up 9 percent of the city's rental housing and an even bigger chunk of affordable housing for the poor. NYCHA no doubt has problems— from aging buildings to chronic elevator breakdowns to disasters like deadly stairwell blazes caused by flammable paint. But for 65 years it has been a reliable component of the city's infrastructure.

Part of NYCHA's strength comes from its economic mix. When it began in 1934, applicants had to pass a credit check. In the 1950s, public housing became a repository for tenants displaced by urban renewal, and income levels were considered less important. In 1981, Congress forbade authorities from filling more than 25 percent of their existing units or 15 percent of future buildings with higher-income applicants. By 1983, Marder says, only half of NYCHA tenants had jobs, and "in 1996, it was under 30 percent and moving down."

Even so, NYCHA developments never disintegrated into the kind of projects that prompted Congress to try to ditch public housing entirely. That impetus came from places like the "vertical ghettos" of Newark's Stella Wright Homes or Chicago's State Street corridor, where more than two miles of high-rise projects constituted 11 of the city's 15 poorest census tracts; the buildings are being demolished.

But while public housing in New York may have remained intact, no other city suffers the kind of housing crunch that we do. "In New York, public housing is the housing of choice in many poor neighborhoods," says CSS's Jones. "There just are no comparable units available in the private market."

Even so, the mistrust that NYCHA tenants have of their landlord is obvious and deep. At the September hearings, tenants railed against day-to-day hassles— Judith Smith of Manhattan's Frederick Douglass Houses raised deafening hoots and hollers when she complained about appliances— and grave social problems. Harold Durant from Surfside in Brooklyn lashed out at the board "sitting there all smug and all because they know the law is already passed and they think we're all the same damn Negroes that we've always been. This is a plan to move us all out." One senior resident of Farragut Houses in Brooklyn summed up the distrust best: "While we were sleeping," she said, "they were thinking."

Tenants were most outraged at a NYCHA plan to draw higher-income applicants to impoverished developments by offering an extra bedroom. NYCHA estimates at least 105,000 tenants are doubled up, waiting years for larger units. "There's nothing wrong with bringing more working people to public housing," said Dwayne Francis of Holmes-Isaacs Houses in Manhattan. "But it should not be at the expense of tenants who have been here and dealt with high crime and drugs and urine-soaked elevators all these years." NYCHA has subsequently scrapped the offer.

While the plan, so far, seems wildly unpopular, it is much toned down from earlier versions that would have ultimately killed HUD and, in the meanwhile, required tenants to get high school diplomas or GEDs, pay more than 30 percent of their income for rent, and move out after five years. What finally passed is a milder bill, but one that still hurts the poorest people.

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