POLITICS: NYCHA corruption means it’s time to privatize
We already knew the New York City Housing Authority is the city’s biggest slumlord.
Now we’re reminded it’s a corrupt slumlord.
Just five years after a federal court found its employees had lied about a vital public-health matter — conducting lead-paint inspections of apartments — we learn NYCHA supervisors solicited bribes in exchange for no-bid repair contracts.
US Attorney Damian Williams charged 70 NYCHA supervisors with “the largest single-day bribery takedown in the history of the Justice Department.”
His office provides the sordid details: “The defendants typically demanded approximately 10% to 20% of the contract value — between $500 and $2,000 depending on the size of the contract — but some defendants demanded even higher amounts.”
It’s time for more far-reaching change to address NYCHA’s twin problems of decay and corruption: privatization.
There’s simply no reason the same agency that owns public housing should also operate it.
Private management has a great virtue: If it fails to maintain the premises, NYCHA can find someone else to do the job.
This may sound pie-in-the-sky, but private redevelopment and management is already happening in many once-troubled NYCHA projects — and could go further if not for a misguided state law.
Through the federal Rental Assistance Demonstration program that channels housing-voucher funds to public housing, NYCHA has turned to private firms for the renovation and management of 30 of its properties, including The Bronx’s Baychester Houses and Bayside’s Ocean Bay.
Both have gone from hellholes to what public housing is supposed to be: safe and sanitary. The same private approach is in the works for six other developments, including the Harlem River Houses and Brooklyn’s Linden Houses.
Private developers/managers operate independently of NYCHA, limiting the possibility of corruption.
But these steps in the right direction have stalled.
Instead, a new round of renovation for another 25,000 units looks likely to leave NYCHA as developer/manager.
That’s thanks to the details of the Public Housing Preservation Trust.
Created by Albany in 2022, it can funnel new federal money into the projects — but does so with key strings attached. It leaves NYCHA itself in charge.
Per the law, residents do get to vote between public and private management.
You might think tenants who have suffered from broken elevators and a lack of heat would be eager to get out from under NYCHA. But not so.
In the one vote conducted to date, in December at Brooklyn’s Nostrand Houses, residents chose to stick with NYCHA management, 464 to 163.
Here’s one possible explanation for the curious choice: A great many NYCHA residents are also employed by the authority.
NYCHA’s largest union, Teamsters 237, reports that a full third of its 8,000 members are NYCHA residents.
Nothing precludes them or their families from voting — or from scaring their neighbors about the alleged evils of privatization.
Not surprisingly, the union, saying it meant keeping “the ‘public’ in public housing,” celebrated after the Nostrand vote.
Residents “rejected privatization,” it crowed. “NYCHA residents understand that the only way to improve public housing is to BOTH increase funding for repairs AND keep the dedicated NYCHA employees who know public housing best!”
It’s a boast that certainly rings hollow today, with what we’ve learned can happen in the contracting process as led by those who know public housing best.
There’s a better way.
In future elections, NYCHA employees should be barred from voting: They have a conflict of interest.
And private developers should be allowed to make their case at individual projects in advance of these elections — and show what they’ve accomplished elsewhere.
Far better for NYCHA to revert to the federal RAD program to both renovate and manage buildings as it copes with a $78 billion capital-repairs backlog.
Unions would be free to compete to provide services for the renovated buildings — if they can demonstrate they can provide good service at a good price.
But if the definition of insanity is repeating the same bad approach and hoping for a better result, sticking with NYCHA — where incompetence is complemented by corruption — is a classic example.
Howard Husock is an American Enterprise Institute senior fellow and the author of “The Poor Side of Town — And Why We Need It.”