Posted on Wednesday, October 27, 2010
By CARA BUCKLEY
Public housing is falling apart around the country, as federal money has been unable to keep up with the repair needs of buildings more than half a century old.
Over the last 15 years, 150,000 of the nation’s public housing units have been lost, officials said, as agencies have sold or torn down decrepit properties. An additional 5,700 units are pending removal from federal public housing programs.
In New York City, which has a three-year backlog of repair requests, the effects can be seen in places like Aixa Torres’s apartment on the Lower East Side.
The paint chips were the first to be dislodged, drifting like snowflakes from her kitchen ceiling. When water began dripping through the ceiling, forming a hole sometime this spring, she called her landlord, the city’s public housing authority.
A maintenance worker showed up to take a look, and repairs were scheduled.
A plasterer would come to fix the hole in May 2011. A painter would come to cover up the plasterer’s work in May 2012.
The drip has yet to be fixed.
The situation is no better in Newark, which has shuttered 600 units that it cannot afford to fix. The city was given federal approval to raze 1,004 more, but it cannot pay for the demolition.
In Washington, the District of Columbia Housing Authority has floated bonds, among other measures, to put $140 million into fixing up its developments, but it is still $200 million short of what the authority says it needs for repairs.
Baltimore’s housing authority needs $860 million for crucial repairs, said the housing commissioner, Paul T. Graziano; it has demolished or shuttered 33 percent of its units since the 1990s and has another 600 “on the verge of failure,” with falling cabinets, unhinged doors and aging electrical systems.
All told, the country’s housing authorities still need $22 billion to $32 billion to rehabilitate their buildings, said David Lipsetz, a senior adviser in the Office of Public and Indian Housing with the Department of Housing and Urban Development — an average of $25,000 for each of the 1.175 million public housing units. But that figure is based on a 1998 study, he said; an updated report is in the works.
“The future does not look bright in a model that was built 70-plus years ago and is failing to keep these buildings in good shape,” Mr. Lipsetz said.
A $4 billion federal stimulus infusion helped, but “with that capital backlog,” he said, “they’re never catching up.”
In response, HUD has drafted legislation that would allow housing agencies to borrow public and private money, using their land and buildings as equity, to finance repairs. Money received annually from Congress would be used to repay the debt over time. Mr. Lipsetz said that based on other forms of subsidized housing programs the department runs, the risk of default was less than one-tenth of 1 percent.
The bill, yet to be formally introduced in Congress, stirred mixed reactions among housing authorities and advocates, many of whom feared the prospect of public housing falling into private hands.
“Across the country, some advocates are against any private lending,” said Victor Bach, a senior housing policy analyst at the Community Service Society of New York. “On the other hand, a lot of advocates feel that this is the only way, given the way Washington works, to preserve our public housing resources. We’re not going to get the capital appropriations needed from Congress.”
But the proposed legislation, currently being reworked, met stiff opposition at a Congressional hearing in May.
“I agree we need more capital funding,” said Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, chairman of the Financial Services Committee, which held the hearing. “But putting a private mortgage on public housing is not a good idea.”
Meanwhile, tenants of New York’s public housing say repair delays have never been worse, a belief borne out by figures from the New York City Housing Authority. It already has 106,000 unfulfilled work orders, 9,000 of which are scheduled for 2012 and an additional 300 already for 2013. The State Assembly’s Committee on Housing is holding a public hearing on Tuesday focused on the maintenance delays.
Michael Kelly, the housing authority’s general manager, said his agency simply could not keep up. A 2005 independent study found that the agency needed $7.5 billion to put its buildings in good condition. But the authority had only $1.5 billion for such needs.
As the federal government began reducing appropriations for public housing early in the last decade, the authority trimmed its staff, cutting 1,540 operations jobs from 2005 to 2009. Meanwhile, work orders for those very people — carpenters, painters and plasterers — began to soar, from 180,000 in 2005 to 250,000 this year, as of Sept. 24.
Mr. Kelly said the cutbacks had affected the authority’s ability to respond to work orders “as quickly as we’d like to.”
Tenant frustration has been steadily mounting, with some residents resorting to legal action in housing courts to force repairs to their apartments. Meanwhile, broader issues like poor plumbing and leaky roofs go unaddressed, in turn causing more damage.
Unpatched holes invite cockroaches and mice. Drips lead to collapsed ceilings.
Latoya Craig, 27, an administrative assistant who lives in Moore Houses, in the South Bronx, was recently told that the large hole in her bathroom ceiling would not be repaired until May. In the meantime, mold has started to bloom, causing her to worry about the health of her 6-year-old son.
“The only good thing is he can’t reach it,” she said.
Tenants have also complained about the way repairs are scheduled. Around the time the agency began cutting jobs, it introduced a computerized call center to streamline repair work. An automated voice answers in English, with repair requests eventually answered by a housing authority staff member. (Translators are available as needed, a staff member said, but tenants say many non-English callers often give up before that.)
Maintenance workers then make in-person assessments, and repairs are prioritized based on need. If there is no emergency, or if a skilled tradesman is required, the repair date is often years off.
Damaris Reyes, executive director of the tenant advocacy group Good Old Lower East Side, said she had heard from people who had had painters show up before plasterers to paint over holes that remain unfixed, and from tenants whose faulty kitchen sinks were ripped months before the replacement arrived. “Instead of multiple visits for one issue, they should address the issue collectively,” Ms. Reyes said.
Mr. Kelly said the housing authority was seeking solutions, like diverting $7 million from unspent administration fees to the maintenance backlog. The agency may also seek to bring in volunteers, through nonprofit groups, he said, to help with painting and other minor repairs, and perhaps tap residents too — a Habitat for Humanity-type approach that would not cost a thing. Still, such measures would amount to drops in the bucket, given the billions in repairs the agency requires.
New York is unusual in that it has demolished very little of its public housing stock. Elsewhere in the country, notably in Atlanta and New Orleans, housing agencies have torn down decrepit buildings and instead given poor residents federally subsidized housing vouchers to use toward their rent.
But Will Fischer, a senior policy analyst who focuses on low-income housing at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a research group, said vouchers could be harder for some populations to use successfully, especially the elderly, as not every landlord accepts them. He also found that in the long run, vouchers cost the government more money than preserving existing housing.
“The buildings are already there,” Mr. Fischer said, “It’s just a matter of renovation.”