How Trump Plans to Devastate America's Housing Projects

Get ready for more busted elevators, leaky roofs, and cold children.

by Sonja Sharp; illustrated by Lia Kantrowitz
Mar 16 2017, 6:38pm

Image by Lia Kantrowitz

When Rose Townsend wants to mix baby formula for her four-month-old, she has to get water from the bathtub. If the elevator is out—as it often is in Brooklyn's sprawling Lafayette Gardens and plenty of other New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) developments across the five boroughs—the mother of three is forced to choose between waiting hours for a repair and abandoning the bottom half of her youngest son's stroller in the lobby so she can drag his detachable car seat up the urine-soaked stairs.

Windows stay broken. The front door won't lock. When her kitchen sink broke nearly two weeks ago, Townsend said, NYCHA workers pulled the counter away from the wall, ripped out the basin and covered the hole with a plastic trash bag, leaving the pipes exposed.

Oh, and the heat? Don't count on it.

"They cut the heat off and it's cold outside," she told me as she shivered in the bitter March chill while waiting for a cab near Woodhull Hospital. "I've got a newborn baby and my house feel like out here."

Disrepair is nothing new for New York's public housing projects. But if the Trump administration has its way, that problem is about to get a whole lot worse.

The White House wants to slash over $6 billion from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which could in turn gut funding to public housing across the country. Though national in scope, those cuts would be especially painful for residents in New York City, which accounts for about 20 percent of the country's public housing stock. Earlier this month, HUD began cuts of $35 million—which would amount to five percent, over the course of the year—in federal funds for the city's affordable housing units, the Wall Street Journal reported. The exact number is likely to change with the Congressional budget process next month, and could be much higher.

The impact is poised to be immediate and uncomfortable for the 400,000 "authorized residents" of the New York City projects—and the estimated 100,000 to 200,000 additional "ghost residents" who also call those developments home. Nationally, about 2.2 million Americans live in what most of us know as public housing (millions more lean on Section Eight housing vouchers).

"It means slower services, slower repairs, lot more strain on our infrastructure," a NYCHA spokeswoman told VICE, confirming the authority's ongoing federal haircut.

Public housing residents across the city say basic maintenance and ordinary repairs already take too long, though wait times have actually shrunk considerably in recent years, from an average of about nine days in 2015 to about four days last year, according to a January report from the Mayor's Office.

The HUD cuts will wipe out those gains, the NYCHA spokeswoman told me. But they will also threaten critical infrastructure projects that keep the aging developments from falling apart.

"It's going to be grim," said Nicholas Bloom, an associate professor of social science at the New York Institute of Technology. "The city and the state are going to have to make those investments," something he said local governments are reluctant to do, lest that encourage the feds to cut deeper still.

"We've gotta fight HUD, we need to fight [Secretary] Ben Carson," argued Robert Jackson, a 40-year resident of the Albany Houses in Crown Heights, where workers have nearly finished a years-long, city-funded overhaul of the 60-year-old development's leaky roofs. NYCHA budgeted about at least a billion dollars for similar capital projects in 2015, and more are desperately needed. (Federal housing officials at HUD declined to comment for this story.)

Lafayette Gardens was built in 1965, making it one of the newest projects in NYCHA's portfolio. The oldest turned 80 in 2015, and at least ten more are septuagenarians. If age weren't enough, a bevy of developments from Surfside Gardens in Coney Island and Ocean Bay Apartments in Rockaway to Jacob Riis in the Lower East Side are still awaiting repairs from Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

"It's a dire situation," the NYCHA spokeswoman said.

And even if the infrastructure stands up, scaling back the most basic repairs may have another unintended consequence—an increase in crime.

A 2014 analysis by the New York Daily News showed that the projects most badly in need of repair also had among the highest rates of crime, even as the crime rate hit historic lows across the city.

"They just now fixed the front door in the building—just now, and I've been living there for nine months," Townsend said of her home. "People come in the building, they get into fights in the building. It's a big problem."

But Bloom, the social scientist, thinks these cuts are merely a taste of what's to come.

"This is just the beginning—Congress is going to change the rules of the game," he warned. "The best thing [Americans] are going to be able to do is limit the damage."

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