On one of those summer days when even the shade feels useless, Rita Joseph welcomes me into her cool apartment a few blocks from the Atlantic Ocean, something she would not have done a few years ago. “I was embarrassed,” she says. Joseph, a 40-year resident of the Ocean Bay housing project in Far Rockaway, is positively bubbly. She has a new kitchen, windows, bathrooms, and floors. The hallway is clean, though she politely calls the super’s attention to an unswept pathway out back. (“I know you’re busy, I don’t like to bother you,” she coos.) She feels comfortable in her own home and, just as important, she feels comfortable leaving it.
In the spotless lobby, I meet Visol Smith, another Ocean Bay tenant who, as official “violence interrupter” for Rock Safe Streets, runs the security patrol. Smith tells me that he and his team stuck around for the duration of a basketball game the night before, just to make sure the rivalries didn’t get out of hand. His job, he says, has gotten a lot easier, thanks to new lighting, video cameras, and a general sense that the buildings are being cared for.
The story of Ocean Bay is a rare turnaround in a public housing system that is mired in woe, and it blazes a narrow, uncertain path out of hopelessness. There was nothing foregone about it. When Superstorm Sandy body-slammed New York five years ago, it hit the Rockaways from both sides. Pounding the Atlantic shore and sneaking around into Jamaica Bay, it flooded the first floor of Ocean Bay, sowing mold spores, drowning the basement boilers, knocking out the electrical system, and turning an already dangerous and derelict set of 24 buildings into a vast enclave of misery. Crime in Far Rockaway and in other public-housing projects remained stubbornly high even as it sank all over the city. At Ocean Bay, residents left their apartments as rarely as possible for fear of being hit by one of the gunshots that cracked almost daily somewhere in the complex. Children stayed away from the playgrounds as if they were haunted.
Indoors, conditions were equally dismal. Steam spewed out of risers, loosening tiles, rotting plaster, flaking paint, and leaching asbestos. With the doors to garbage chutes either broken or too narrow, refuse piled up on the landings until, eventually, maybe, someone came to take it away. Elevators broke and stayed broken. Windows stuck shut, appliances failed, light bulbs blew and went unreplaced, and darkened stairwells emitted fumes of urine. Nearly every gas line leaked.
That picture was hardly unique. Even without an epic storm, recurring hurricanes of crime, drugs, decay, and segregation have afflicted public-housing projects all over the country, causing damage that local, state, and federal governments often address with the least effective policy tool: despair. The cycle is ruthless. Poverty meets indifference, neglect breeds rot, rot gives way to crime, which triggers more scorn and funding cuts … and so on, until it seems like the only viable solution is to blow the projects up. That solves nothing, but only shunts the poor to another jurisdiction and exacerbates the shortage of decent affordable housing.
New York doesn’t demolish housing projects, but there are many who wish it would. In the popular imagination — and in the ideology of legislators at every level of government — public housing concentrates urban ills into clusters of prisonlike towers. And it’s true that the mid-century practice of corralling the poor into brick-box campuses was a form of idealism gone wrong. But hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers live in public housing today. With affordable living space drastically scarce, we have a responsibility to keep those buildings decent and livable into the foreseeable future.
NYCHA’s to-do list runs to $17 billion worth of repairs — many times more than the agency can scrape together, or than Washington will ever provide. And that’s not even counting an operating deficit that runs about $22 million a year. Asking NYCHA to fix your cracked toilet or your building’s leaky roof is like trying to patch a parachute in mid-jump. By the time the job’s done, you’ve got other problems.
Two things make Ocean Bay special. The first is the sucker punch of Superstorm Sandy, which made it eligible for disaster-relief funds. The second is its status as New York’s first experiment with Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), a federal pilot program that may be the only component of the Obama housing policy that the Trump administration can embrace, since it involves a public-private partnership. That phrase refers to any hybrid arrangement that gets private money to pay for a public good, and it sets off air-raid sirens in liberal quarters, where it’s considered code for public rip-off. But public-private partnerships come in all moral flavors, from subsidized AIDS-research institutes to diabolical for-profit prisons. At least in its early stages, RAD seems to be settling at the virtuous end of the spectrum.
Here’s how it works. HUD, the federal housing department, sets aside some of what it normally would hand over each year to local housing authorities, and instead redirects it to Section 8, a program that subsidizes rentals through payments to private landlords. It’s nothing but a bookkeeping trick, but it has profound implications, because the same amount of money is now guaranteed for 20 years, rather than fluctuating annually, and because building owners can borrow against it. Private owners can do what NYCHA can’t: unlock the power of banks and other investors.
To rehab Ocean Bay, NYCHA teamed up with a construction company, a management firm, and two non-profits to form a new development corporation; MDG Design + Construction oversees the repairs and Wavecrest Management runs the buildings. Together they whirled post-Sandy disaster-relief funds, federal tax credits, state bonds, and private equity into a $560 million financial smoothie. That was enough money to fix up all 1,395 apartments, and also to erect landscaped floodwalls that will keep out the next storm surge and prefabricate 24 boiler rooms that will be lifted onto the buildings’ roofs.
At first, tenants (including Rita Joseph) fumed at the notion of bringing in a private developer, because if there’s one thing they hate more than NYCHA having control of their homes, it’s NYCHA losing control of their homes. The word privatization is a curse. Skeptics, who abound in public housing, fear that tapping the private sector’s cash spigots means inviting rapacious developers on a tenant-screwing spree. Those are rational fears. You don’t have to be paranoid to envision new landlords raising rents, evicting the vulnerable, and converting modest rentals into luxury condos. Lourdes Germán, a public-finance expert at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, says that public-private partnerships can bring enormous benefits, but she worries that a vaguely worded national program like RAD leaves enough wiggle room for developers to victimize tenants in an assortment of creative ways.
NYCHA, MDG, and Germán all make the same point that in order to benefit all parties, the specific agreement between the housing authority and its private partners has to be airtight and well thought out. Under the terms, NYCHA cedes day-to-day operations but retains ownership and control of the tenant list — MDG can’t kick anyone out of an apartment or slip someone’s cousin to the head of the line. The company collects development fees, but it can’t swell its cash flow by selling off units, jacking up rents, or letting conditions deteriorate. The buildings’ affordability is permanently locked in. Unless there’s some undiscovered angle or unintended consequence, the deal uncorks some much-needed money while minimizing the chance of skullduggery or exploitation. At least in this case, the process has won over most doubters.
The renovation work is being done without moving anybody out, which means that residents like Rita Joseph and Visol Smith do have to suffer through the disruption but can keep an eye on their homes. Some choose to spend a night or cook a meal in temporary “hospitality suites.” Others aren’t taking any chances: They pull up a chair by the front door and keep watch until the construction workers are gone.
RAD is neither the only option, nor is it a panacea. This first deal represents a windfall, and maybe even redemption, for Ocean Bay, but it’s hard to duplicate without both the damage and the clean-up money that Superstorm Sandy delivered. And in any case it only accounts for 3 percent of NYCHA’s ever deepening needs. A recent report on the state of public housing by the Community Service Society ends with the (probably futile) hope for more public money. “Without a dramatic change in government priorities — one that favors restoring public housing rather than marginalizing it while exploiting its land assets — the prospects are dismal.” In that case, they’re dismal.
And yet Ocean Bay does suggest an alternative. The persistence of poverty requires the kind of thinking that fuses politics, finance, social services, and design. Every pipe refitted, every tile re-cemented and door replaced, is a vote of confidence in the unglamorous but sturdy architecture of the public-housing era. Basic maintenance reinforces the optimism of the past — the dogmatic, often misguided, and frequently condescending but ultimately uplifting attitude that decent housing is a human right and society has a duty to provide it.