By George Capsis
Any historic review of public housing in cities like Chicago or St. Louis offers images of massive controlled demolitions when the sprawling public projects, which have run out of money to make even essential repairs, have turned into leaking, rodent-infested, crumbling prisons for the poor. When it is clearly apparent that the money to fix them is not there and never will be, they are blown apart in a spectacular admission of government myopia.
New York is the last major city still housing over 400,000 people in a wide scattering of public housing enclaves. The Fulton Houses in Chelsea is unique in being the last to receive federal assistance. In close proximity to the expensive historic townhouses of the West Village and the exploding emerald city towers of Hudson Yards, Fulton Houses is, by contrast, millions of dollars behind in making critical repairs and is sliding with ever-greater rapidity toward inevitable disaster.
But wait. Our Mayor de Blasio and our local city legislators like Corey Johnson (who will likely be our next mayor) have more or less come to the conclusion that the money to avoid demolition cannot be found by ringing those of us who pay real estate taxes any further (mine went from $11,000 a year to $82,000), and are now coyly suggesting turning to the free enterprise system—by inviting real estate developers to take an empty lot on the Fulton Housing campus and build several new buildings which will combine two-thirds market rate apartments with one third government-subsidized rentals. The “surplus” rent money will be used to fix up and maintain the remaining aging enclave.
A new group of young activists (some, but not all, are Fulton House residents) who are not in favor of private developer involvement have stated that it is not that the city doesn’t have the money for repairs and maintenance, but that we simply have to “change our priorities” and shift money from the rich (via taxes) to the permanently poor.
Now, in my youth I always thought of myself as a liberal, sort of a strong Democrat, so it was with a bit of chagrin that I received a call from a young man with an intense serious voice speaking for the Fulton House tenants. No, he was not a tenant there but had been pushed out of his rent-stabilized apartment and joined the activist group. His argument was that if you mix two-thirds market rate tenants with government-subsidized tenants you have, God forbid, “gentrification,” and somehow, I suppose, the more affluent residents will take over the cheap Section 8 apartments.
About 80 years ago Mayor La Guardia went to Washington and worked with President Roosevelt to build the very first massive housing project on the Lower East Side near Delancey Street—called the First Houses. Eleanor Roosevelt dedicated the new development. This was in (as they say) the depths of the Great Depression.
Now, during the Depression everybody was poor; so to get an apartment in these new slum clearance projects you didn’t have to prove how poor you were but that you did have a work record and given a chance you could pay the modest rent for this nice clean gleaming apartment (glorious).
In 1913 our federal government passed a law that anybody walking into a hospital emergency room had to be treated even if they could not pay, and now we have Medicare which eliminates many health cost fears for most seniors. Indeed, all advanced nations have medical support systems today (there is an implicit acceptance of the sacredness of life). Laws and government policy support that if you’re hungry you must be fed, if you are ill the government must take care of you, and if you are homeless it must provide a home for you. But while Medicare is universal, providing a home is not—it is a city or state responsibility to provide public housing laws and plans or projects. Why not make it a federal responsibility?
If our federal government would accept that it is required to provide a home or shelter for everyone needing one but unable to fully pay for it, then an 80-year-old man trapped in a five-flight rent-controlled apartment in snowy New York could move to a retirement home in Florida and give up his apartment to three young college grads who, collectively, can pay the market rent and allow the landlord to make the needed repairs. An 80-year-old great grandmother could return to Puerto Rico and live with her younger brother and his family. A 70-year-old could retire from her job after 30 years and join her sister in a house that is large enough to accommodate them both and their several dogs and a harassed cat.
This new plan might be called the National Home Assistance (NHA), and would give the 400,000 people living in New York City housing projects a chance to escape when their buildings’ heating plants fail as the temperature falls below freezing.
It is much easier to be poor in Florida than in Manhattan.