“Just this year alone, public budgets allocated billions of dollars in federal spending for military intervention abroad, the state subsidy of a billionaire’s football stadium in Buffalo, and even over a billion dollars in city funding for the PACT conversions of public housing to private management companies rather than for public housing itself.”
On Monday, May 23rd, two competing visions for public housing and the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) were on display. At NYCHA’s Polo Grounds Towers community in Harlem, housing authority officials alongside Mayor Eric Adams and other local elected officials held a press conference advocating for passage of the proposed “Public Housing Preservation Trust” legislation in Albany.
Throughout the nearly one-hour press conference, officials consistently touted the resident engagement and support for the Trust, although just two tenant association presidents were chosen to represent public housing residents, with each reading from prepared statements. While speakers at the press conference repeatedly peddled the idea that the Trust would be able to finally fund the housing authority’s long overdue repair and maintenance needs, there were precious few details about how exactly that would happen. The word “debt” for example—the primary motivator behind establishing the Trust and the financing mechanism planned to raise funds for repairs—was only mentioned once, and only in a brief response to a reporter’s question near the close of the conference.
The Trust was first introduced in 2020 as part of NYCHA’s Blueprint for Change and heavily promoted during the early throes of the COVID-19 pandemic that disproportionately devastated public housing residents. The proposal is now in its third iteration after fierce and steadfast resident opposition due to the bill’s reliance on debt-financing mechanisms for repairs that would prioritize creditors and debt-service over residents and community needs, open the possibility for future foreclosure, and ultimately dismantle true Section 9 public housing in the city.
Despite these glaring concerns and consistent resident opposition, the bill—which Gov. Kathy Hochul signed into effect last week—has received a renewed round of support from NYCHA, elected officials, and even a cadre of nonprofits and housing advocacy groups, largely on the basis of a new amendment with the promise of an “opt-in” provision. Like the vague promises of repair funds coming through the Trust, speakers at the press conference, and elected officials’ endorsements of the bill, parroted NYCHA’s company line regarding the opt-in, claiming it to be an empowering democratic choice to enter the Trust based on resident votes on a per campus basis.
The optics around the opt-in have proven persuasive, leading to self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist State Sen. Julia Salazar to sponsor the bill’s reintroduction in the Senate at the eleventh hour, and despite clear resident resistance.
The bill’s language, however, falls far short from establishing any true resident decision-making, or even ensuring a representative voting process. Instead, the only mention of a “voting process” in the bill is in reference to a vote before the Trust itself transfers or mortgages a development to another entity, presumably a real estate developer, bank, or private equity firm. The bill also makes no mention of the specifics behind a resident vote, the minimum participation needed for a quorum, or the outreach and information needed for residents to make an informed decision. By NYCHA’s own admission, previous resident voting processes have hovered around a 10 percent participation rate, signaling that any haphazard voting procedure will be far from representative.
All told, this makes the much-celebrated opt-in amendment little more than an appeal to better the already sullied optics of the plan. The fact that the bill was newly reintroduced in the Senate despite these glaring issues is indicative of the inherently flawed and superficial resident engagement process in the legislation, and the PR campaign to support it.
But even if the bill offered a truly democratic resident vote before a community entered the Trust model, the choice currently presented to residents would still pose a false dichotomy. Elected officials in favor of the Trust across each level of government have positioned the future of public housing at the crossroads between either embracing privatization through the Trust (or for some communities RAD/PACT), or maintaining an ever worsening status quo of substandard living conditions.
This creates a coercive choice for residents who have been denied any avenue for improving their living conditions outside of acquiescing to a privatization scheme. Asking residents to choose between accepting a fraught plan, or continue facing substandard (and sometimes fatal) living conditions due to government inaction is no choice at all.
True resident leaders, public housing tenants, and organizers, however, see a third way forward: fully funding public housing with public funds. While elected officials have preferred to pass the buck on government funding for NYCHA from city, to state, to federal budgets, in truth, each level has been culpable in the decades-long disinvestment of public housing communities. Just this year alone, public budgets allocated billions of dollars in federal spending for military intervention abroad, the state subsidy of a billionaire’s football stadium in Buffalo, and even over a billion dollars in city funding for the PACT conversions of public housing to private management companies rather than for public housing itself.
Public housing residents citywide have been clear and steadfast in their opposition to the Trust bill since it was proposed, prompting the legislation to be amended repeatedly before this recent third round of revisions and its newly included opt-in provision. Over the last three years, opposition to the Trust has not waned, but only grown. On the same day as NYCHA’s press conference, residents and organizers alongside a select few elected officials held their own rally in front of City Hall, where resident leaders, and public housing tenants from each borough called for an immediate halt to the Trust legislation, and an increased influx of public funds into the housing authority.
Unlike NYCHA and the Trust legislation, the residents’ message has been clear and consistent: fully fund NYCHA and save truly public housing in New York City.
Marquis Jenkins is a longtime resident of NYCHA’s Bracetti Plaza, and founding member of Residents to Preserve Public Housing (RPPH). James Rodriguez, Ph.D. is a longtime resident of NYCHA’s Rutgers Houses, and assistant professor of Urban Studies at the City University of New York. Aixa Torres is the President of NYCHA’s Alfred E. Smith Resident Association, and member of NYCHA’s Citywide Council of Presidents (CCOP).