A Look into New York City Public Housing

Although it is not a segment of the real estate market that I provide services for, I get many questions from friends and clients about how public housing works in New York City.  The history of public housing in New York City dates back to 1934, when Mayor Fiorello La Guardia established the New York City Housing Authority (or NYCHA), then the only department of its kind in the United States. In less than a year, this new department created the city and the nation’s first public housing development, called the First Houses on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In fact, it wasn’t until 1937 that the federal government passed public housing legislation, making New York City an innovator in affordable housing.

Image courtesy of The Observer

Image courtesy of The Observer

In New York City, many of the older tenements were falling apart, and deemed unsafe for anyone, let alone families, to live in. Mayor La Guardia, alongside the famed developer Robert Moses, intended public housing to accommodate working and middle class families, bringing them out of the poorly built apartments dating from the turn of the century or earlier. However, as the population of the city dramatically shifted in the 1960’s, so too did the population of public housing. Many poorer families entered these houses. No longer considered a place where economically mobile families would live, many of those in the middle class left these neighborhoods behind. By the 1970’s, over 800,000 residents—mostly more affluent individuals and families—moved away from the city. This, alongside the rising costs of maintenance for housing and unchanged tenant incomes, caused a massive budget shortfall. Many public housing developments became uncared for, some of which dated back to the 1930’s (and are still in use today). However, by the mid 1980’s the city’s population began to increase, and the need for housing increased as well. By 1992, the NYCHA waiting list was at 240,000 families and counting. Today, nearly 420,000 New Yorkers live in 334 NYCHA developments in all five boroughs. This includes 10 developments in Staten Island with 4,499 apartment, 22 developments in Queens with 17,112 apartments, 100 developments in the Bronx with 44,493 apartments, 100 developments in Brooklyn with 58,698 apartments, and 102 developments in Manhattan with 53,570 apartments. The Brownsville section of Brooklyn has the highest concentration of low income public housing in America, following the demolition of public housing units in Chicago’s South Side. The Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City, Queens is the United States’ largest housing project.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYCHA Chair & Chief Executive Officer Shola Olatoye

Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYCHA Chair & Chief Executive Officer Shola Olatoye

Applicants must apply online for consideration for an apartment in a public housing development. Potential residents must select a first and second borough choice, details of their household income, family composition and current living situation. Applicants must not make above the income limits (i.e. $67,100 for a family of four), meet the NYCHA definition of “family”, not be deemed as a risk for the welfare and safety of other residents, and the applicant (and co-applicant, if necessary), must be at least 18 years old. Applications are then given a priority code (indicating how severe the city views the applicant’s need is for housing), and placed on a wait-list period. Then, an in-person eligibility interview must be conducted. Only after all these steps can a family be placed in public housing. Hundreds of developments are over 40 years old. And in 2007, NYCHA faced a $225 million budget shortfall. In order to help alleviate this shortfall, one plan being discussed is to sell a 50% stake in six Section 8-subsidized developments to private developers in exchange for $350M for renovations over the next 15 years.  Of course there is a “catch:” once the apartments are renovated (about $80K will be invested in each unit), the developers will be eligible to receive from the federal government the difference between market rate rents and the rents housing-authority tenants pay, and the developers could theoretically convert the units to market rate when the 30 years expires.  The plans are still being written, so I will keep you posted. Still, for all these issues,public housing in New York City is the most successful in the country among major metropolises. As many other cities demolish their public housing developments, the demand in New York City increases. The city continues to provide services and affordable living to these residents, and Mayor de Blasio has outlined his plan to construct 200,000 new units in the five boroughs during the next ten years. Read his plan here.  For a list of notable celebrities who once lived in the city’s public housing projects, click here.

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