Living in public housing would drive you nuts if you let it, Johnson said.
Of all the housing experts I spoke to, Howard Husock, vice-president of policy research at the rightist Manhattan Institute, was the only one to offer a comprehensive plan about what to do about the projects.
“Public housing might have seemed like a good idea in the thirties, but it wasn’t then “and it certainly isn’t now,” Husock said when I visited his office on Vanderbilt Avenue, next door to the Yale Club. John Rhea was doing his best, but he’d been dealt an “impossible hand,” Husock said. As long as NYCHA depended on federal funds, it was doomed to failure. Continued subsidies compounded the faulty logic built into the system by the 1969 passage of the Brooke Amendment, which fixed public-housing residents’ rent at 25 percent (now 30 percent) of their income, thereby assuring that the projects would never pay for themselves. Since then, Husock said, the projects had created a huge “frozen zone” that impeded the “normal turnover of properties,” choking off the construction of other housing, both market rate and affordable.
“People weren’t supposed to live in public housing for 40 years. Where did La Guardia say that? Public housing was supposed to give you a leg up, a way to move on. Not stay forever,” Husock maintained.
Delighting in an opportunity to skewer moldy liberal wrongheadedness, Husock scoffed at the notion that the presence of the Fulton Houses in the middle of million-dollar Chelsea provided welcome diversity to an increasingly monolithic neighborhood. On the contrary, Husock said, the projects were actually a cruel thing, a modern-day gulag, with hundreds of thousands of people mired in an obsolete, thoroughly discredited, ego-debilitating residential system that happened to be taking up some very valuable room. Luckily, the remedy was quite straightforward. First of all, the sheer volume of the projects would have to be significantly reined in. Cutting back to around 60 percent of the current stock would be a good first-phase goal, Husock said. The rest could be repurposed for mixed use or simply sold off. The sale of the more lucrative properties would pay for the upgrade of the remaining developments. To ensure reasonable resident turnover, restrictions on the length of tenancy would be established. Husock thought “five years” would be a reasonable time limit.
“Footprint reduction, sale of attractive properties, time limit on residence, that’s about it,” Husock said.
As I traveled through Nychaland, it was difficult to totally ignore Husock’s modest proposal. Certainly he had a point when it came to long-term tenancy. As the city continues to grow, the difficult housing market has caused people to make use of a crazy patchwork of available domiciles. In Sunset Park, Mexican day workers crammed into basements. In Queens, unrelated working families shared kitchens. Weren’t these the very people public housing was designed to serve? Yet, with little turnover in the system, many immigrants found themselves at the end of four- and five-year-long waiting lists. When Asians, the fastest-growing ethnic group in the city, manage to get an apartment, they are often harassed by residents. Recently, a Chinese family that had been placed at Marcy came home to find the door of their apartment smeared with feces.
The topic came up often during discussions with current residents, eliciting surprisingly little sympathy for newcomers. “I get why people might be upset, but when I got in here in 1977, I knew I wasn’t moving. Where was I supposed to go, a single mother with a disabled child? Great Neck? Hello? Besides, this is a good deal,” said a friend of mine as we checked the river view from the sixteenth-story window of her Harlem project. She currently pays just over $500 for her three-bedroom apartment, slightly more than the NYCHA average of $434. NYCHA has been attempting to “right-size” her down to a one-bedroom, but she’s been resisting. She needs the space. Other relatives lived in the apartment on and off, none of whom were on the lease. Then again, everyone she knew flouted NYCHA rules in one way or another.
Funny how things work out, my friend said, as she changed the channel on her flat-screen TV. “The other day at the bodega I ran into these four white girls. I started talking to them. They said they were living right across the street in this dumpy building paying $800. I thought, Well, that’s all right. Then they say they’re paying $800 apiece! One of them is sleeping on the couch. Sleeping on the couch in their own house! I went back to my apartment, looked at my view, and thought, Maybe my elevator is pissy, but if that’s gentrification, who’s the joke on now?”