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What Is NYCHA? Your Questions Answered About New York City Public Housing

If the population were a state, it’d be as big as Wyoming, or Vermont. Figuring out how to repair the crumbling, enormous housing system has stymied leaders for years as tenants suffer.

The Harlem River Houses circa 1938.
The Harlem River Houses circa 1938.
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library

Officially, just under 400,000 people live in New York City Housing Authority buildings. But that’s the on-the-books tally.

The total population is likely much higher: According to sanitation department figures cited by NYCHA’s federal monitor in 2019, the real number may be as high as 600,000.

That’s more people than live in Miami, Atlanta, Cleveland, New Orleans or Tampa. If NYCHA’s population were a state, it would rival Wyoming or Vermont.

But despite its size, many New Yorkers may not realize what public housing in the city is all about — how it works, how to get in and the battle over its future with an estimated $40 billion in repairs needed.

Here’s what you need to know about the city’s public housing authority.

Where did NYCHA come from?

NYCHA was born in 1934 via dual forces: pressure from housing reformers and big-time, Depression-era spending by the federal government.

For years, public health and social-welfare advocates in New York had pushed for better living options to replace acres of decrepit tenements, which were “a public health nightmare,” according to Nicholas Dagen Bloom, an urban policy professor at Hunter College and public housing historian.

Several families often shared one toilet, he noted. Many did not have heat or hot water and apartments were dangerously overcrowded, making them perfect incubators for diseases like tuberculosis.

Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia at the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens.
Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia at the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens.
Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library

But it wasn’t until the Great Depression and administration of then-President Franklin Roosevelt — a former New York governor whose wife, Eleanor, was friends with leading Greenwich Village housing advocate Mary Simkhovitch — that the goals of the reformers combined with the economic engine of federal work programs, Bloom said.

“This was really the long-held dream of the housing reformers — to have the money to build municipally owned and operated housing,” he said.

Mayor Fiorello La Guardia opened the first public housing development, First Houses, at the corner of Avenue A and East Third Street, in 1935. The bulk of NYCHA’s real estate portfolio was built over the next 30 years.

Who controls NYCHA?

NYCHA is what’s called a public development corporation, which is controlled by the mayor.

The authority is run by a seven-person board, all appointed by the mayor. This includes three members who are residents of public housing, and a board chair who also serves as NYCHA’s chief executive officer.

NYCHA Chair Gregory Russ speaks with tenants at the Betances Houses in the Bronx, Aug. 14, 2019.
NYCHA Chair Gregory Russ speaks with tenants at the Betances Houses in the Bronx, Aug. 14, 2019.
Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

The current CEO and board chair of NYCHA is Gregory Russ, who took the job in 2019. The mayor also appoints a general manager, currently Vito Mustaciuolo.

The authority’s day-to-day operations are handled by hundreds of staffers managed by the heads of NYCHA’s many departments.

But looming over all this is a federal monitor, Bart Schwartz, who was appointed in 2019 under an agreement between the city and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, stemming from NYCHA’s lead crisis.

How do you get into public housing as a tenant?

To start the process of getting into public housing, you must fill out an application with NYCHA. But you should know: The waiting list is very long. According to NYCHA, more than 160,000 applicants are on the waitlist — and NYCHA only has about 179,000 apartments.

“The waiting list is crazy. I waited seven years to move in,” said Saundrea Coleman, a resident of the Holmes-Isaacs complex in Yorkville, who grew up in The Bronx’s McKinley Houses in the 1970s.

NYCHA also administers housing in thousands of units through Section 8 — in which tenants live in private apartments with rent subsidized by the federal government. But the waiting list for that program is currently closed to the general public due to lack of funding.

Some things to bear in mind if you want to apply for a NYCHA residence:

  • You’ll need to renew your application every two years to remain on the waiting list.
  • You do not need to be a United States citizen to apply, but at least one member of your household must have “eligible immigration status,” including permanent residency or refugee or asylum status, the authority says on its FAQ page.
  • You can list a preference for the boroughs where you’d like to live, but cannot apply to a specific development. Assignments to apartments are made according to factors like household size and what type of units are open.
  • After you get off the waitlist and have an interview with NYCHA, you’ll have to pass a criminal background check to get an apartment — a controversial policy that NYCHA recently softened.
  • You do not need to be employed to live in NYCHA, but if you work, you will pay no more than 30% of your income on rent.
  • The income limits for applicants, based on HUD guidelines, is $63,700 for a household of one, $72,800 for a household of two and $81,900 for a household of three.

Why do NYCHA tenants struggle with so many maintenance issues and rundown buildings?

You’ve likely heard at least one story of the serious problems NYCHA residents confront in their apartments and buildings: Elevators are chronically out; heat and hot water disappear for days or weeks; mold infestations and toxic lead have spurred lawsuits and the federal monitor.

How did it get like this? Neglect, incompetence and internal dysfunction are a big part of the problem. Underscoring that, however, is a lack of money.

Partly, that’s because when NYCHA first started building housing, “the tenant rents were supposed to pay for the ongoing maintenance,” he said. But as NYCHA relaxed work requirements for tenants under political pressure in the 1960s, the authority was not able to collect enough rent to cover its bills.

The Wald Houses in the East Village, Aug. 19, 2020.
The Wald Houses in the East Village, Aug. 19, 2020.

At the same time, white tenants were leaving cities and public housing all over the country. In New York, the majority of NYCHA tenants were Black and Latino by the late 1950s. A drop in federal support coincided with the demographic shift.

“At the national level, public housing is framed as a failed program. Now, I don’t agree with that. But it’s framed in racialized terms, right, the same way the story of ‘welfare queen’ was,” Bloom said.

“There was the white flight, and that’s when the disinvestment began to happen,” said Coleman, a NYCHA tenant and organizer who has seen the deterioration of NYCHA first-hand.

At McKinley as a child, she remembers the complex being so clean and well-maintained she could walk around barefoot “and I didn’t get cut.” Now, she and her neighbors are suing the authority to force them to make long-needed repairs.

“They’re not valuing the residents,” she said.

Beginning in the 1970s, cities across the country abandoned and demolished complexes, including in the notorious cases of Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis and Cabrini-Green in Chicago. New York City officials resisted the wrecking-ball trend — but were left with an enormous group of buildings and not enough funding to maintain them. In the 1980s, then-President Ronald Reagan cut federal funding to public housing, furthering damage done during the tumultuous Nixon administration.

“NYCHA had a problem,” Bloom said. “They had been so successful, in a sense, in building all this high-rise public housing, but they really were the only player in a business that the country really didn’t want to fund.”

Over the decades, a lack of proper funding — accompanied by negligence and fraud — has caused NYCHA’s buildings to fall into desperate states of disrepair.

Investigations by the news media and federal prosecutors have uncovered outrageous conduct, including that NYCHA staff hid poor apartment conditions from federal overseers and falsely claimed apartments were free of lead paint that had never been inspected.

To Coleman, it’s frustrating — because tenant organizers like her have been sounding the alarm for years.

“When you have a problem with your car, you don’t take 10 years to fix your car, right? You fix your car, immediately,” she said.

Russ says it will now take $40 billion to make necessary repairs at NYCHA. That’s up from the $16.5 billion the authority said it would need just 10 years ago.

What’s being done now to try to save NYCHA? And what is RAD?

Local leaders have tried in different ways to raise cash for NYCHA, including then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s strategy to allow private construction on NYCHA-owned land, which Mayor Bill de Blasio continued.

But the focus has turned in recent years to converting large chunks of NYCHA apartments to private management through a federal program called Rental Assistance Demonstration, or RAD. The idea is to allow private developers to rehabilitate public housing buildings and, in return, they can collect rent from tenants as well as federal rent vouchers. NYCHA retains ownership of the properties, but relinquishes day-to-day operation to the new managers.

We wrote more about what RAD means here.

NYCHA is trying to convert nearly a third of its public housing units to private management through RAD by 2028. Thousands of units have been converted already or are switching over now. Some tenants who have gone through it say it’s a big improvement, while many others say they’re in the dark about the changes.

South Williamsburg NYCHA residents protest work being done on the building through new private management, Jan. 11, 2020.
South Williamsburg NYCHA residents protest work being done on the building through new private management, Jan. 11, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

To Coleman, all of those ideas amount to one thing.

“It’s just NYCHA just passing on their responsibility,” she said.

More recently, Russ came up with a different solution for NYCHA’s financial woes: put all of the city’s public housing into a preservation trust.

Russ argues the move would allow public housing units to get a different type of financial support known as a Tenant Protection Voucher that would allow the preservation trust to borrow money through bonds to fund repairs and maintenance.

The move would need approval from the state legislature, and Congress would need to get on board with the voucher idea, too. But Russ says it makes sense for the long-term financial health of the housing authority.

“We are leveraging this appropriation by saying, ‘Look, if you give us a dollar, we can borrow six,’” he told WNYC in August 2020.

The trust would run independently, similarly to the School Construction Authority, and NYCHA would sign a long-term lease to hand over its property to the new group, NY1 reported.

One potential drawback for the Trust idea and RAD: They could each circumvent both the federal monitor and a 2013 mold clean-up agreement known as the Baez settlement, leaving tenants without protections so many fought hard for.

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