‘The Public Trust would at long last empower NYCHA to leverage debt, allowing it to deploy capital funds quickly, cut through antiquated procurement rules, and make measurable improvements in the lives of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers.’
As hopes for a comprehensive Build Back Better package have faded, many Americans are disappointed, not least of all New York City’s 350,000 public housing residents who stood to benefit from a proposed $65 billion or more to address long-deferred maintenance. Unable to pass through the Senate’s narrow Democratic majority, Build Back Better was arguably this generation’s last hope for any significant federal aid for NYCHA.
In a perfect world, the federal government would fully fund NYCHA’s needs—but that hasn’t been an option for decades, not even under united Democratic governance. This fact long ago caught up with NYCHA residents, who struggle daily with heat outages, leaks, mold, broken elevators, broken windows, and worse. It’s time for us as New Yorkers to face this reality, and accept that funding from Washington simply isn’t coming to bail us out.
The need is beyond urgent. But with increased federal funding out of the picture, what can New York do? Under President Obama, HUD offered a novel approach to the challenge. The Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program (locally called Permanent Affordability Commitment Together or “PACT”) allows Public Housing Authorities to work with private and nonprofit development partners to leverage enhanced capital and subsidy resources, delivering comprehensive repairs and professional property management. In New York City, where residents retain all rights and protections, RAD/PACT has already converted over 14,000 units with over 20,000 more in the pipeline.
Now, a new model has emerged that can fill in the gaps left by federal disinvestment and RAD/PACT. Laid out in a recent brief from CPC, a New York City Public Housing Preservation Trust includes a fully public conversion process to address resident concerns with private developers. Under this plan, state legislation would establish a new public benefit corporation— the Public Trust—that would take oversight of public housing developments and leverage federal Tenant Protection Vouchers to fund repairs.
The Public Trust would at long last empower NYCHA to leverage debt, allowing it to deploy capital funds quickly, cut through antiquated procurement rules, and make measurable improvements in the lives of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers. As proposed, the Public Trust plan would generate $18-25 billion in 110,000 apartments, the balance of units not slated for renovation through RAD/PACT. In other words, all remaining NYCHA residents would see improvements.
NYCHA residents have heard decades of promises as their homes have decayed around them, leaving everyone understandably wary of change. But if we work together, there are ways to move forward. Over the last few years, residents of Fulton and Elliott-Chelsea worked closely with the city, NYCHA, and other community stakeholders to evaluate different solutions for their developments, direct the decision-making and planning process, and eventually select the development team that will deliver repairs to residents. A similarly meaningful engagement process—one that empowers residents—must be at the heart of the Public Trust.
The time to take this transformational step is right now. Last year, the State Senate and Assembly had wide support for the Public Housing Preservation Trust. The bill put forth sadly failed to make it to a vote. But the situation has changed. For the first time in recent memory, Albany and City Hall are in sync under the leadership of a governor and mayor who have demonstrated cooperation across key issues—and with the diminishment of BBB, we know for certain that further aid will not come from Washington. Now is the time for Gov. Kathy Hochul to lead the way by providing for a Trust in her executive budget.
For decades, arguments about crafting the most perfect solution has led to nothing except anger, mistrust, and worse conditions for NYCHA’s tenants. When your family is living day to day in deteriorating housing, those endless debates are for other people who have the time and luxury of going to a home that is in a livable condition. The Public Trust gives NYCHA the ability to properly resource and restructure, to make a real difference in the lives of the people who call these buildings home.
Even as hopes for federal funding have faded, our own political stars have aligned to give New Yorkers their only remaining solution to save public housing. It’s time to work together—and use every tool at our disposal—to finally deliver a better quality of life for the one in fifteen New Yorkers who call NYCHA home.
Rafael Cestero is CEO of The Community Preservation Corporation (CPC).