A recent article by The Nation was published making the case for public housing. Last year editors of Project Lives, a book borne from a participatory photography program, offered a glimpse into the lives of residents in public housing. Other non-profit organizations and housing coalitions also created reports advocating to strengthen, fund and invest in public housing. As the housing crisis worsens, advocates of affordable housing are organizing and trying to get legislators to move the needle forward and push for more affordable units. Contrary to their efforts, instead what is happening is rezoning of neighborhoods, tax credits for developers for building market-rate apartments with a few affordable units and sweeping gentrification in low-income neighborhoods. What this city needs to do is build more public housing. Of course, we must first make the case regarding its benefits, but in order to do that we must first change the narrative. In my opinion, it would be most effective if public housing residents led the discussion.
I am currently a resident of public housing and I believe that public housing works! It is essential for low-income residents to have a place they can afford. People who pay 40-50% of their income in rent often have to make choices between paying rent or buying food and sometimes medicine. Public housing residents pay the federally recommended 30% of their income for rent. Personally, public housing has allowed me to reach goals that I would otherwise not have met if my rent had not been affordable. Public housing offers stability for its residents that is not provided within market-rate housing or often, so-called “affordable” housing. As the demand for more low-income housing increases, New York and other urban cities cannot afford to develop affordable units at a snails pace. Most of the new affordable housing built in New York City sets aside 20% of the units for low-income residents. Mayor di Blasio’s housing plan to build 200,000 affordable housing units over the next ten years (or maybe eight by now) is admirable, however, the math lags behind the crisis. It has been widely reported that the income and wealth gap is widening, that the middle-class is shrinking, and there is a growing class of working poor. When you add that up, more and more people need PUBLIC housing! In 2015, there were over 270,000 applicants on NYCHA’s waiting list. I often wonder what those families are doing to survive while waiting to get somewhere they can afford. Building mixed-income developments, de-concentrating poverty through the Housing Choice Voucher program, and giving millions away to developers in the form of tax breaks is doing little to stem the tide of low-income and working poor residents who need affordable housing. We are at crisis levels and need to build units en masse. This way we can decrease the number of residents who need low-income housing at a more rapid pace. Residents often wait two- to three years at a time for new buildings that will avail less than 100 units for low-income families; meanwhile, the number of people needing low-income housing is growing steadily and rapidly, most recently because of displacement by gentrification. In many low-income neighborhoods gentrification is displacing working class folks at an alarming pace, and this crisis shows no signs of slowing. The best way to save this city’s working class and low-income residents is to build more public housing. But first we need to show that the public housing that already stands is worth preservation and investment.
I propose we first change the narrative around public housing. Too many articles report on the negative aspects and to be fair, there are a few. BUT…, there is more good than bad and that story is not being told. However, when the good story is told, it is with surprise that the “people” in public housing developments (a.k.a. The Projects) lead ordinary lives despite the obstacles they must sometimes overcome as do residents who reside in private developments and apartment buildings. It is very frustrating that residents who reside in public housing are stigmatized because of where they live. The truth is over 46 percent of NYCHA residents are working class. We have goals and dreams the same as other New York City residents. We work and play the same as other New York City residents. The problem is without hearing about these communities from NYCHA residents themselves, and only referring to the narrative in many online and print magazines and newspapers that public housing is a “bad place,” one is left to their imagination and public housing becomes the “boogey-man;” scary and undeserving of adequate funding because real life doesn’t take place there. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Despite navigating scarce resources, many public housing residents mange to “make lemonade.” The stigma of public housing and its culture places a heavy burden on residents who feel the need to overcome someones perception of who they are and how they live. Moreover, the conditions that public housing residents suffer has more to do with the decline in support from all levels of government than being low-income or poor. For nearly a decade (2001-2011), government support declined by almost $640 million, putting a severe strain on NYCHA’s ability to operate and maintain its housing stock.
It’s time residents ask why the government gave up on us. It’s time to hold them accountable. To us, to me! My life is worth it and so are thousands of others who call NYCHA home.