With Public Housing Under Attack, Can An Ex-Lehman Banker Save New York’s Last Affordable Apartments?

Bigger than Boston, dicier than Detroit, NYCHA is a city unto itself, and John Rhea is its mayor—and traffic cop and garbage man and teacher.

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Housing, housing, everywhere, and not a room to rent. (Courtesy NYCHA)

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Housing homies. (Ed Reed/Mayor’s Office)

Stepping off the elevator on the 12th floor of 250 Broadway, you pass by a dozen  photographs of idyllic, almost bucolic housing projects. The dogwoods are in bloom, matching the pink matting within the frames. That the pictures are a bit faded only adds to the utopianism of the scenes: families frolic in green grass courtyards, the sun is always shining.

These days, the picture is far less rosy: Apartments are overcome with toxic black mold, riven with cavernous leaks, overrun with rats, sometimes all three and then some. Repairs? Fuggetaboutit. Those will be years away. And that’s just inside; outside, it’s a war zone.

Or so the city’s tabloids would have you believe.

But the Housing Authority—or NYCHA, as almost everyone calls it, pronouncing it like some bureaucratic sneeze—represents much more than those run-down apartments we read about, of which there are fewer than the coverage suggests.

With more than 420,000 residents, NYCHA has a population that surpasses Atlanta. Factor in the 232,000 people who receive Section 8 vouchers, which NYCHA oversees, and it is larger than Denver, Seattle or Boston. The difference is that this mythical city would be made up of only the very worst neighborhoods—a world of Brownsvilles and Stapletons and Mott Havens without the Park Slopes and Upper East Sides to support them. This is both NYCHA’s biggest problem and its greatest virtue, a blessing and a curse passed down from Robert Moses, Fiorello LaGuardia and Franklin Roosevelt. Despite the eternal outcry over NYCHA’s shortcomings, most agree that the neighborhoods the projects inhabit would be even worse off without them. Who else is going to provide so many residents with affordable, if not always attractive, housing, in a city that has less and less?

Which is why the agency’s decline is so frustrating to so many. None more so than John Rhea, the man Mayor Bloomberg charged three years ago with fixing the problems—so many problems spread among so much real estate: 178,000 apartments in 334 complexes scattered across all five boroughs.

Of average height and trim build, Mr. Rhea still dresses like he’s headed to work at his last job, as a managing director at Barclays. On the morning of a two-hour interview with The Observer in the chairman’s conference room (as the sign outside the door said), his suit had a fine pinstripe. He wore a white shirt and red tie patterned with tiny Barrel of Monkey monkeys, hand-in-hand.

While he refuses to believe NYCHA’s troubles are intractable, he admits they are grave. “To me, the problem with NYCHA is gridlock. It’s no one actor but things piling up,” Mr. Rhea said. “It starts with an accident, then people are blocking the intersection, one truck is sticking out a little too far so one lane is jammed down. Everyone is trying to merge into fewer lanes. The traffic lights aren’t changing.” Mr. Rhea sees himself as public housing’s traffic cop.

As if trapped in Bizarro World, NYCHA’s story runs counter to the city’s resurgence of the past two decades. When New York was in decline, the housing authority remained, thanks to federal largesse, a shining beacon of hope in the city even as everything around it was consumed. Now the situation has flipped. As the city swells, NYCHA has been suffering, thanks largely to neglect in Washington, where almost all of the authority’s funds come from.

In many ways, the debate surrounding NYCHA mirrors those raging throughout the country over the role of government in society.

“It was the place to be, everyone was always hanging out at our place,” said City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, who grew up in the Williamsburg Houses, New York’s second oldest housing development (the complex was even made a city landmark in 2003). “Even when the city started to get really bad in the ’70s and ’80s, NYCHA still had it all.”

Now representing the East Village and the Lower East Side, Ms. Mendez has one of the largest tracts of public housing in her district. Since joining the council in 2006, she has chaired its public housing committee. She is a fierce advocate and frequent critic of NYCHA, but she is also quick to credit Mayor Bloomberg for supporting the authority when few others will.

“When John Rhea came in, I was skeptical,” she said. “I didn’t think we needed a banker, but I have to say, he’s done a good job. We’re seeing progress, but I don’t know if it’s enough. Given the situation we’re in, I don’t know if any one person could fix it.”