de Blasio's neoliberalism is undermining NYCHA public housing

Almost from its beginning, Progress Queens has reported about how the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City) has managed the New York City Housing Authority. One of Progress Queens’ first, in-depth reports examined the sale of a portfolio of project-based Section 8 apartment building complexes that NYCHA claimed it could no longer financially afford to maintain.

In the absence of new Federal funding for public housing, Mayor de Blasio has touted a transformational plan to create a supplemental revenue stream for NYHA. This transformational plan, code-named Next Generation, involves embracing neoliberal economics : privatizing strategic public assets.

Next Generation calls for the de Blasio administration to transfer Government-owned public housing stock that is managed by NYCHA on behalf of the public into the Federal Government’s Section 8 program of rent subsidies. Doing so would allow NYCHA to legally sell stakes in public housing to private real estate developers. The plan also calls for the sale or lease of NYCHA’s playgrounds, gardens, and parking lots to real estate developers for the construction of privately-owned affordable housing.

In defending his Next Generation plan for NYCHA, Mayor de Blasio proverbially said that NYCHA had its back to the wall : “I don’t know of a lot of ways to make money that we haven’t found,” according to a report published by The New York Observer (emphasis added).

It’s very telling that Mayor de Blasio’s approach to NYCHA is that it should make money, even though the authority is providing housing as a human right.

Mayor de Blasio’s plan for NYCHA, as executed by his dutiful soldier, NYCHA CEO Shola Olatye, is testing everybody’s patience -- and then some, including those of NYCHA’s own tenants.

Ignoring for the moment the neoliberal economic concerns about Mayor de Blasio’s aims, the long-term plan for NYCHA’s financial turnaround involves the transfer, sale, or construction of apartments that is years in the making. Any new rents, if any were to trickle down into NYCHA’s coffers after private real estate developers take their profits, will not be able to materially impact the living conditions of tenants living in NYCHA apartments today, and this is where the rubber meets the road.

As reported by Progress Queens and others, notably by The New York Daily News, there are concerns that NYCHA tenants live in an unknown number of apartments that contain lead in drinking water, in an estimated 55,000 apartments that contain lead paint, and in an unknown number of apartments that contain mold and/or mildew.

In order to diminish the calls for political accountability for City Hall’s failure to physically maintain NYCHA’s stock of 170,000 apartments, the administration of Mayor de Blasio has sought to block or make it difficult for the public to know the real risks of habitability facing NYCHA’s tenants. NYCHA will not disclose the location of the 55,000 apartments that reportedly contain lead paint, citing privacy concerns, according to a report published by The New York Daily News. That is hogwash, because NYCHA provided to Progress Queens the location of apartments that have tested positive for lead in drinking water, invoking no privacy concerns. Nonetheless, NYCHA made it difficult for Progress Queens to receive some records responsive to a request made under the State’s Freedom of Information Law, overcharged Progress Queens for what few records were produced in response to the FOIL request, and then summarily closed out the FOIL request with impunity, despite open, unanswered questions about the few records that were produced.

Mayor de Blasio’s mismanagement of NYCHA has already triggered the appointment by a Federal judge of a special master to over see a class action mold litigation case seeking to compel NYCHA to remediate and abate mold from its apartments, and the Federal prosecutors from the office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara have reportedly commenced an investigation of lead exposure and the risks of lead exposure to NYCHA’s tenants. That Federal investigation is also reportedly examining whether NYCHA has made any false financial claims about the habitability of its apartments to the U.S. Federal Government.

For Mayor de Blasio’s privatization plan for NYCHA to succeed, the public must be nefariously kept in the dark about the health hazards facing NYCHA’s tenants, and Mayor de Blasio is gambling that this will continue, thanks to lax oversight and public apathy.

If only the members of the New York City Council, collectively and through the representation of Councilmember Ritchie Torres (D-Fordham), the chair of the City Council committee on public housing, who have oversight powers in respect of NYCHA, were not beholden to the same neoliberal economic worldview as Mayor de Blasio, then maybe the public could count on elected officials to restore NYCHA to what it once was and what it should be : a New Deal example of providing public housing as a human right.

If only the City’s scores of key nonprofit tenant advocacy groups were not politically beholden to the New York City Council for funding, then maybe the advocacy groups could advocate for public housing tenants.

If only the public were more politically engaged, including outside of elections, then maybe the public would demand administration accountability for its mismanagement of NYCHA.

Luckily, through each of : the public records requested and published by Progress Queens ; the anticipated work of a Court-appointed special master ; and the expected findings of a Federal investigation, the public will soon have a complete picture about how Mayor de Blasio’s transformational plan for NYCHA was nothing but a cover to privatize NYCHA, leaving NYCHA’s tenants to live with lead and mold in the meantime.

But no amount of work done by intermediaries will obviate the need for the public to eventually become involved in order to save public housing. A large number of NYCHA's tenants are living in inhabitable apartments. This violates our values and the law. The public must hold Mayor de Blasio accountable.

  -- Progress Queens