The sound system of the current news cycle blares so loudly and cacophonously that it is easy for the urgent messages of a local story to go unheard, for the national audience to miss any opportunities to listen. But the crisis surrounding New York City’s public housing system, outlined in condemning detail in a recent investigation by federal prosecutors, has broad resonance for what it reveals about the dismissive and contemptuous attitudes toward the poor, held even by the most liberal bureaucracies.
The New York City Housing Authority, the largest public housing system in the country, contains more than 400,000 tenants in 325 developments which are variously and dangerously falling apart. The city can rightly blame decades of disinvestment by the federal government for the general state of disrepair. But it is, itself, solely responsible for the culture of deception that evolved to conceal the many ways that the system has failed to protect residents from the hazards of living in old and badly maintained buildings.
The complaint issued by the United States attorney for the Southern District reveals just how widely the city falsified compliance documents related to lead-paint regulations and makes clear the consequences of its inventions — between 2010 and 2016 at least 19 children were found to have elevated levels of lead after exposure to peeling lead paint in their families’ apartments — apartments that the housing authority had deemed lead-free. More than 11,000 others remain at risk.
One lead-poisoned child living in the Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn was found to occupy an apartment where a hole in a kitchen wall revealed a burst pipe. After conducting an inspection of that apartment, the city’s health department, which also found an infestation of roaches in every room, ordered the housing authority to abate the lead. In keeping with its policy never simply to acquiesce to the department’s safety demands, the authority, instead, contested the results, conducted its own tests, and, not surprisingly, found contradictory and exonerating numbers.
Beyond the tragic circumstances around lead, the investigation found that the housing authority had for years deployed all sorts of trickery to keep inspectors sent by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development from seeing how damaged its buildings really were and issuing violations. Water might get turned off before inspections to conceal the presence of leaks; holes might be plugged with newspaper and painted over to create the illusion that they had actually been fixed. Signs might be hung reading, “Danger: Do Not Enter,” to prevent inspectors from going into basement rooms where conditions were truly terrible.
This might all seem quite shocking but really it is where neoliberalism takes us — when governments behave like free markets, when Darwinian economics prevail over the public good, those overseeing that good will inevitably be coaxed into adopting the worst habits of the private sector.
In this instance, the actions taken by the housing authority mimic those of the city’s least caring landlords. Some of the moves, in fact, come right from their playbook. Recently, Dara Soukamneuth, a tenants’ rights activist in Crown Heights, one of Brooklyn’s most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, explained what life was like in the building where she lives, where a new landlord has been trying to push out those with rent-stabilized apartments. During winter those apartments are typically very cold, she told me, save for the time inspectors are known to be coming. “There’ll be heat for a half-hour and then no heat for days,’’ she said.
When I have visited public housing developments over the past few years, tenants have talked to me repeatedly about repairs that never got made. These stories did not jibe with numbers put forth by the city attesting to the progress it was making getting through its enormous backlog of repairs; but as the federal investigation also indicates, some of these numbers were manipulated. Just a few months ago, a tenant in East Harlem who was in poor health because of problems with mold in her apartment said that maintenance people would show up specifically on days when they knew no one was home, so nothing could be done.
Last fall the city’s public advocate, Letitia James, released a list of the city’s worst landlords. Their buildings were infested with vermin; they had moldy walls and ruptured ceilings — precisely the deficiencies that plague public housing, which is required to provide safe and sanitary apartments to low-income people.
That list, which comes out every year, was started by Bill de Blasio in 2010, when he was the public advocate. Though the inexcusable behavior of the housing authority predated his mayoralty, Mr. de Blasio, who ran as a progressive promising to combat the evils of inequality, did not stop it. Instead he continued to invoke the name of Fiorello H. LaGuardia, the mayor under whom public housing was first built, with grand ideals, in the 1930s.
In response to the federal investigation, the mayor called the actions of the authority a disgrace, as if it operated in a city that he did not actually oversee. Beyond leaving a grim mark on his legacy, the investigation hands Republicans running against urban liberals a major bit of ammunition: What have progressives really done for you?
Rather than face a trial, the city has settled with the federal government and committed to spending more than $2 billion to correct the error of its ways. A federal monitor will be put in place to keep an eye on things. The city needs the task master.
Follow Ginia Bellafante on Twitter: @ginianyt