Delays hold back public housing expansion plans

Cooper Park Houses in Brooklyn. Photo: Jim Henderson/Wikimedia Commons

By now, Cooper Park Houses—a public housing project in Greenpoint, Brooklyn—should have had its 12th building erected. Instead, seven years after the New York City Housing Authority approved construction the agency is still negotiating while families wait for a place to live.

Decades of budget cuts and a moratorium on the construction of new public housing units have hamstrung the housing authority’s ability to meet demand from nearly 300,000 applicants on waiting lists for Housing Authority apartments and vouchers. The department currently operates 334 projects, many of which could be expanded to accommodate more residents. Some, like Cooper Park, had plans to expand approved years ago.

At a City Council budget hearing this week, New York City Housing Authority Chairman John Rhea refused to specify the number of ongoing negotiations, but said confidently that the agency was working on “a lot.” The long-term plan to preserve public housing released by the authority early this year showed that a total of 1,800 units were still in the pre-development phase as of 2011—some having started as early as 2004.

Delays at the Cooper Park Houses gave some residents hope that the Housing Authority could build the new apartments elsewhere. The authority planned to construct an additional apartment building on a narrow parking lot adjacent to one of the project’s 11 extant dwellings. Tenants objected, saying that while the community certainly needs more low-income housing units, the buildings would sit so close together that families would literally be able to look out their windows and see into their neighbors’ living rooms.

“We just don’t have the space,” said Karen Leader, a member of the Cooper Park resident council. “We’re already crowded. We’re living like rats in a maze on top of each other.”

Residents suggested instead that the building be constructed on part of a nearby park owned by the New York City Housing Authority. Leader said that the authority cited a lack of funds — the department projects a $13 billion capital shortfall through the next three years — as delaying the process. At the council hearing, the department maintained that argument.

“In a world of scarce resources and time, the more difficult a situation the longer it is going to take and the higher likelihood that it won’t happen,” said Rhea in response to pointed questions from council members.

Since 2004, the authority has developed about 1,400 new units in the city. Twice as many were listed as either under construction or negotiation. The authority’s preservation plan outlines steps that the department will take to expand and maintain their projects, including surveys and reports to determine how best to expand the number of public housing units.

At the meeting, Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez (D–Washington Heights) contended that the solution was much simpler than the authority was letting on. “The city says it has the money, and NYCHA says it has the land,” Rodriguez said at the Monday meeting.

But in 1998, the U.S. Congress passed an amendment banning housing authorities from developing new public housing themselves. Because of this law, the New York City Housing Authority can only enhance existing projects or contract development to outside firms, confirms a NYCHA spokesperson.

“Sure they could be doing more,” said Monique “Mo” George, public housing partnership director at the organizing group Community Voices Heard. “But to NYCHA’s credit, they are thinking of creative ways to develop more units because they can’t just build.”

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