Fixing NYCHA-Land: Public Housing Is Still Ailing, But At Least the Buildings Are Getting Some Repairs

The demand is rising, but the funding is falling.
The demand is rising, but the funding is falling. Photo Courtesy of the New York City Housing Authority

The New York City Housing Authority’s remains beset by financial difficulties—the federal sequestration left it with a $205 million budget shortfall this year—a major gouge after more than a decade of cuts (the federal government has slashed some $2 billion in funding since 2001)—and its largely mid-century housing stock is ailing, in needs of billions of dollars of work. But at least many of its buildings are getting some long-awaited repairs.

On September 1, the Authority announced that the repair backlog had dropped to 189,805, down from 422,639 on January 1 of this year—the Housing Authority has made the repairs a priority, refusing to cut staff for the program even as they had to be laid off elsewhere. And yesterday the city announced that a capital project bond issuance has generated $732 million for major renovation work.

The funds—to be spent over the next 2 to 3 years, according to NYCHA—are the largest proceeds ever raised for public housing authority capital funds, and will be used for major repair work on roofs, brickwork and other structural needs. Efforts to tackle the repair backlog are focused on less-extensive problems.

NYCHA said that the repair backlog is still on track to be eliminated by the New Year, which is probably a good thing given mayoral frontrunner Bill de Blasio’s recent critiques of the poor condition of many NYCHA buildings and notoriously long waits for exterminators. One woman told the Daily News that she “gave up on waiting for the exterminator and got a cat.”

Then again, while all the Democratic hopeful expressed dismay over the state of public housing during their sleepover earlier this year, it’s unclear how any of them would remedy the underlying problem—at a time of unprecedented need (a new census report just revealed that the city’s poverty rate has continued to climb, along with it’s income gap), the country’s largest public housing authority has less and less money to work with.

The last time NYCHA raised funds—$400 million—via bond issuance was in 2005, and while the agency said that the sequestration was not directly related to this most recent transaction, the ongoing federal funding cuts were.

“Federal funding to public housing authorities has steadily decreased, while buildings continue to age,” according to a NYCHA spokesperson. “This transaction will enable NYCHA to provide more preventative fixes to our buildings… reducing the cost of repairing them in the future.”

The capital repair funds will be used to fix deteriorating building exteriors and systems at 24 public housing developments, according to the agency, including Kingsborough and Kingsborough Extension in Brooklyn, where work has already begun.

Still, the cash infusion, large though it may be, will not result in a transformation of the housing authority’s aging housing stock, so much as return a handful of the city’s 344 complexes to reasonably good condition. Over the past three years, the Authority has made some $1.5 billion in capital investments, including $500 million in 2012. And as with all bonds, these ones will also need to be repaid.

Nor will it have any impact on the housing authority’s land lease program—commissioner John Rhea’s plan to raise funds by building market-rate developments on housing authority land, supplanting parking lots, and in some cases, community centers and green spaces. The deadline for development proposals, a request that NYCHA put out this summer, is November 4.

“Both ideas, the land lease program and capital funding, spring from the same question: how do you maintain these buildings with diminishing federal funding?” said the spokesperson.

Fixing NYCHA-Land: Public Housing Is Still Ailing, But At Least the Buildings Are Getting Some Repairs