After years of neglect and a winter of heating failures, New York City’s massive public housing system is finally getting attention from politicians, who are simultaneously promising a fix and using the crisis to blame and bludgeon their rivals in an election year.
What’s not clear is whether the new attention will translate into better conditions for tenants of the system, which holds more people than the cities of St. Louis or Cleveland.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency last week at the New York City Housing Authority, saying its 400,000 tenants have had to endure gaps in basic maintenance that have left some units barely fit for habitation.
“It is disgusting,” he told a business group Thursday.
In a series of visits to apartments with peeling paint and crumbling plaster, the Democrat, a former U.S. housing secretary under President Bill Clinton, also assailed the authority as grossly mismanaged.
Cuomo said he was appointing a monitor to oversee repairs, saying simply giving the city-run system money to fix up buildings would be “like throwing it out the window.”
Some tenant groups, which have filed lawsuits over heating breakdowns, missed lead paint inspections and other problems, applauded.
But Cuomo’s actions were also widely seen as a swipe at New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a fellow Democrat who has been locked in an intensely personal and seemingly intractable political feud with the governor for years.
U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, a Republican, also jumped into the fray, saying he would require the Housing Authority to get prior federal approval before expenditure out of its capital fund.
“We don’t want to do it that way, but they forced us into doing it that way until they become more responsible,” Carson told The Wall Street Journal.
Cynthia Nixon, who recently launched a campaign to unseat Cuomo as governor, weighed in. She toured a Brooklyn public housing complex for one of her first campaign events. A close ally of de Blasio, Nixon said the state wasn’t doing enough.
“It’s not just a matter of how broken and crumbling everything is. It’s literally about how it’s killing the residents here,” Nixon said. She said Cuomo, who she would face in the Democratic primary, was more interested in making de Blasio look bad than getting things done.
De Blasio, meanwhile, blamed everybody: the federal government, state government and past mayors. He said Thursday, during a news conference at a Queens Housing Authority complex, that officials have walked away from the project for decades.
The news conference, where de Blasio announced the completion of roof work at 65 Housing Authority buildings, was the third visit to one of the Authority’s developments by a high-profile politician in a week.
Joanne Campbell, the tenants’ association head at the Albany Houses, which had been the site of Nixon’s visit, said workers tidied up the grounds for the occasion. Normally, she said, “There’ll be bedbug mattresses out there for months.”
Campbell was skeptical the sudden spotlight on the Authority would lead to improvements. “Nothing’s going to change,” she said. “This is just to get votes.”
New York City’s public housing system is by far the nation’s largest. Tenants pay an average of $522 a month in rent, with HUD subsidizing the rest. Their average family income of $24,424 would make it difficult to find housing anywhere else in the city.
There are 212,510 families on the waiting list for an apartment, a testament to the high demand for affordable housing in an ultra-expensive city.
Still, some tenants at the Albany Houses said their apartments come with leaks, mold and mice. Regena Orr said she has a leaking pipe within a wall.
“Every two years, this wall swells, the plaster falls and instead of them repairing the leak first, they just come and patch it up,” Orr said. “It’s cheaper for them to just patch it up than go in and change the pipe.”
This past winter has been a bad one for the Housing Authority.
A probe by the city’s department of Investigation found in November that apartments were not properly checked for lead paint, despite the fact that officials had certified inspections were done.
Authority officials admitted at a Feb. 6 City Council hearing that about 80 percent of the apartments they manage had experienced heat or hot water outages since Oct. 1.
“The loss of heat and hot water is a humanitarian crisis, it’s a state of emergency, it’s a management failure of the highest magnitude,” said City Councilman Ritchie Torres, a Bronx Democrat who grew up in public housing in the 1990s and said he’s never seen the system in worse shape than it is now.