As she settles into one of the most high-profile elected positions in the country, Governor Kathy Hochul will face a dizzying set of historic challenges as New York struggles with an ongoing pandemic and precarious economic recovery. But in her earliest moments of taking office, the newly minted state leader-in-chief has promised to fix a nearly two-decade ongoing crisis that her predecessors have rarely wanted to tackle: the New York City Public Housing Authority.
Hochul’s remarks began on Tuesday, when during a New York Times interview that followed her first public address as governor, she named NYCHA as being one of her main policy differences with Andrew Cuomo.
“I thought we should have done more with the New York City Housing Authority,” she said. “I think there’s still an opportunity.” Saying that she has seen how “transformative it is when you give people a safe home,” she added that the city’s public housing agency is “one area where I would spend more public time and effort.”
The next morning during a television interview on MSNBC, she spoke of “all the frustrations people have with public housing that needs to be focused on.” Then on Thursday, she told reporters she was “not satisfied with NYCHA.” Those comments followed a press event in Harlem in which she formally announced state senator Brian Benjamin as her lieutenant governor. Benjamin, who becomes only the second Black individual to serve as lieutenant governor, has a history of advocating for NYCHA.
In an interview with NY1’s Errol Louis that aired Thursday evening, Hochul announced that she would be assembling a task force led by Benjamin to identify the problems in NYCHA and secure the necessary federal and state funding.
“Everybody deserves the dignity of not just a roof over their head, but a clean environment, a safe environment,” she said.
Hochul’s focus on NYCHA marks a striking departure from previous governors, who have often opted for a hands-off approach towards the agency that houses more than 400,000 low-and middle-income New Yorkers. Operating and capital funding for NYCHA’s more than 300 developments has been largely the responsibility of the federal government, but those subsidies have dwindled since 2000. Saddled with aging buildings that are in chronic need of repair, the housing authority now faces an estimated $40 billion in unmet capital needs.
The last two decades have been arguably the most difficult period for public housing residents, whose complaints about lack of heat, mold, and inhumane living conditions have qualified NYCHA as one of the city’s worst landlords. The pandemic has only exacerbated the crisis; the backlog of repairs grew as residents found themselves trapped at home. This “abject neglect… cannot be the case in the greatest city on earth, New York City,” Hochul said.
But a pledge to come to NYCHA’s aid is not without political risk. Since Governor Henry Lehman in the 1930s, few governors have wanted to carve out a meaningful role in the management of the city’s public housing stock, according to Nicholas Bloom, who wrote a book on the history of public housing in New York City. NYCHA is a state-chartered entity, but state law grants control of the agency to the mayor through the appointment of its board members and chairperson.
“Owning NYCHA is from many respects a political liability,” Bloom said. He added that the system is vast—the city’s housing authority is the largest in the country—and its residents, who are mostly Black and Latino, face a confluence of challenges stemming from poverty and racism.
However, Hochul is mounting her first campaign for governor, and as a white upstate politician, will need to court and broaden her appeal with New York City voters. A state-led initiative that contributes to an improved financial outlook and living conditions at NYCHA would be considered a major policy win for a first-time governor.
Regardless of any political calculus, city and state officials, as well as policy experts, praised her pledge to assist the long-struggling agency.
A spokesperson for NYCHA issued the following statement saying, “We look forward to working with Governor Kathy Hochul and her administration on matters related to NYCHA as we continue to transform public housing in New York City. We are grateful for the Governor’s interest and support and hope to have conversations with her and her team in the weeks ahead.”
State Senator Brian Kavanagh, a Democrat who chairs the senate’s housing committee, said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the governor’s remarks.
“There’s a lot that can change and I really welcome the governor’s attention to it,” Kavanagh said.
One impactful change the state could take would be the introduction of routine and more sizable subsidies. Since 2015, the state legislature has approved infusions of capital funding but not at levels, which experts deem sufficient given the scope of the agency’s repair needs. Kavanagh estimated that the state legislature had passed around $650 million in capital subsidies for NYCHA over the last several years, although not all of that money has reached the city.
Kavanagh said he has at times called for additional funding, only to see the amounts “whittled down severely or eliminated” during budget negotiations with former Governor Cuomo.
Victor Bach, who directs housing policy research at Community Service Society (CSS), an anti-poverty research group, said he has recommended that the city and state each contribute $1.5 billion annually over 10 years to address NYCHA’s capital needs crisis.
The biggest blow from the state came in 1998, when Governor George Pataki, a Republican, ended operating subsidies to 15 state-financed public housing developments, which left a $60 million annual shortfall and temporarily resulted in them receiving no operating funding from any level of government, according to a report from CSS.
“Pataki not only didn’t take an interest, he defunded NYCHA,” Bach said.
At the city level, Mayor Michael Bloomberg also withdrew support, terminating operating subsidies to the six city-financed developments that left NYCHA with an annual operating shortfall of $30 million.
In 2018, following a lead paint scandal that resulted in a federal investigation, Cuomo announced a state of emergency over the public housing authority. Although the measure seemed to suggest that the state was taking the reins, it ultimately proved to have little impact in terms of state involvement. Mayor Bill de Blasio angrily pointed out that Cuomo’s action had left the city to foot the bill.
Indeed, several months later, in response to the federal investigation, the city was ordered to provide NYCHA with $1.2 billion annually over five years in additional capital funding. Prior to that, the city was not obligated to fund NYCHA as part of its budget, although under de Blasio, the city had invested nearly $4 billion in the agency.
Around that time, Hochul visited with senior NYCHA residents in Harlem, and with Benjamin in attendance, she offered a much more flattering assessment of Cuomo’s contributions to NYCHA, according to tweets from a student journalist in attendance.
Asked about Hochul’s recent comments, Laura Feyer, a City Hall spokesperson, said, “We look forward to working with [her] on ensuring NYCHA gets the funding it needs to address decades of underinvestment at the state and federal levels.” She said the city was still awaiting the release of $300 million in promised funding from the state.
City officials, Feyer added, were also hoping to work with the state to pass pending legislation that would create a Public Housing Preservation Trust, a government entity that would relieve NYCHA of having to follow cumbersome and costly federal procurement rules governing renovation projects.
Proponents of the trust, led by NYCHA and the mayor’s office, assert that the model would enable the agency to unlock billions of dollars in federal funding for repair and accelerate the renovation of NYCHA’s buildings.
Since being introduced in May, however, the bill has stalled due to objections by tenant leaders at NYCHA, who have often responded skeptically to proposed reforms, including the city’s participation in a federal program known as Rental Assistance Demonstration, or RAD, that hands over the day-to-day management of units to developers. But the trust plan notably stipulates that housing units renovated under the proposed trust would continue to be owned and managed by the housing authority, which would avoid privatization of NYCHA.
Although Bach, the policy analyst at CSS, argued that Hochul could use her bully pulpit to build support for the plan, Kavanagh, one of the bill’s sponsors, said more time was needed to build consensus among stakeholders. “A lot more work needs to be done to build confidence among residents of NYCHA before we proceed with any fundamental restructuring,” he said, adding, “It’s not something that just needs a push over the finish line.”
The senator has instead said he would like to see the governor work with lawmakers to create an annual capital funding stream for NYCHA through a five-year capital budget plan that is currently in the early planning stages.
At the federal level, elected officials and policy experts are also closely monitoring the fate of President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which includes $332 billion for housing and transportation. Already passed by the Senate, the bill is set to be voted on by the House by the end of September.
But most observers say that any federal funding that rises from the proposal is unlikely to meet all of NYCHA’s $40 billion needs. At the outset, Biden had proposed delivering $40 billion for all public housing agencies across the country. “I think we should operate on the assumption that the state needs to find some resources on the state level,” Kavanagh said.
Hochul’s immediate proposal to create yet another state task force to tackle a challenge as longstanding and complicated as NYCHA is likely to elicit some jaded responses. But Bloom, the public housing historian, said he was encouraged by Hochul’s empathy for public housing residents, which he said made her very different from Cuomo.
The hard part, he argued, becomes “figuring out how to generate Albany support for game-changing reform.”