Author(s): Meghan Housewright. Published on September 4, 2018.

When Government Fails

New York City’s public housing fiasco should be a lesson for all agencies about what not to do

Housing for vulnerable populations is a serious, complex policy challenge for cities across the country and around the world. Subsidized public housing is one way governments seek to help people in need, but with limited resources and oversight challenges, the strategy is also fraught with complexity. When cities get it wrong, the fire and life safety risks for tenants can be enormous.

The saga now unfolding at the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) is one such example of how mismanagement and dereliction of oversight at all levels of government can have significant safety consequences.

NYCHA, the largest public housing authority in North America, provides and manages housing for more than 400,000 low- and moderate-income residents throughout New York City. The roots of NYCHA’s freefall go back years, through deep cuts by federal, state, and local politicians. From 2001 to the present, these cuts have created a cumulative operational deficit of $3 billion, with an estimated $31 billion backlog of needed maintenance and repairs.

This past winter in New York was cold, with some lows in the single digits, yet 320,000 of NYCHA’s 400,000 residents experienced heating and/or hot water outages, according to reports. To stay warm, some residents turned on their ovens and left them open to provide heat. One resident testified to the New York City Council in February that she knew “this is dangerous, but there is no other way to stay warm.”

It’s not surprising that chronic budget shortfalls will eventually create health and safety hazards; what is surprising is the alleged attempts to cover them up. In a lawsuit, United States prosecutors say that NYCHA misled the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to believe that its housing complied with regulations on lead paint; NYCHA is also accused of repeatedly making false statements to residents and the public that lead paint was not present in “the vast majority of NYCHA developments.”

HUD regulations require that public housing be “decent, safe, sanitary, and in a state of good repair,” but the lawsuit alleges that NYCHA met those regulations with deception. There were mock ceiling tiles made of painted cardboard, instances of NYCHA officials moving a building’s single electrical panel cover ahead of HUD inspectors, and instructions to maintenance workers to store flammable chemicals out of sight when an inspector was around, the lawsuit said. NYCHA was also cited for failure to conduct safety checks on smoke and carbon monoxide alarms. Residents’ repeated complaints to NYCHA’s hotline went unanswered, and work tickets were closed before problems were fixed, the lawsuit alleges.

Rather than go to court, NYCHA and city officials settled the suit in June. The city agreed to provide an additional $1 billion in funding over the next four years and $200 million each year after that until the issues raised in the suit are addressed to the satisfaction of a federal monitor. The state is now planning to boost funding as well. These are all hopeful signs, but seemingly small given the enormity of the maintenance deficit. A class action lawsuit filed by NYCHA tenants in February is still active in federal court.

While funding for public housing upkeep and maintenance is often sparse, enabling neglect that risks the safety of individuals and families—be it through continued budget cuts or oversight failures—cannot be an acceptable response. Hopefully the NYCHA situation will be a lesson to public housing agency leaders everywhere. The consequences for egregious safety shortcuts and mismanagement are not only negative headlines in a newspaper, but fire victims in a hospital.

MEGHAN HOUSEWRIGHT is director of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute. Top Illustration: Michael Hoeweler