Maintaining NYCHA: Debunking the Myth of Unmanageable High-Rise Public Housing

“If American urbanists and politicians share any conventional wisdom across political divides, it is the idea that public housing failed in every possible dimension.” So begins the new collection Public Housing Myths: Perception, Reality, and Social Policy. There is no doubt that public housing nationwide faces significant structural, operational, financial, and social challenges. But, as the book’s title suggests, editors Nicholas Dagen Bloom, Fritz Umbach, and Lawrence J. Vale think that narrative deserves more scrutiny, and they set out to challenge the predominant misconceptions and gross generalizations about public housing in the US today.

In both Public Housing Myths and Public Housing That Worked, his comprehensive history of the New York City Housing Authority, Nicholas Dagen Bloom brings attention to the unique strengths and successes of New York City’s public housing — a rare position in discourse around NYCHA today. Bloom is not naive to the severe problems plaguing certain developments and the authority’s operations, but he reminds us that public housing is a valuable asset to the city and that many residents consider their homes to be satisfactory, even positive, living environments. While other cities have demolished large swathes of public housing, NYCHA has maintained and adapted theirs amid significant political, social, cultural, and economic shifts. As he summarizes, “providing decent housing for hundreds of thousands of poor people for decades in America’s most expensive city is no small achievement.”

What follows is an excerpt from Public Housing Myths in which Bloom challenges the assumption that high-rise public housing is fundamentally unmanageable by examining the history of NYCHA’s custodial system across its 2,563 residential buildings, many of which are reaching the end of their projected 50-year lifespan. By reminding us of the sheer scale of the challenge at hand and pointing to the rapid and worrisome consequences that can result from staff cutbacks and declining standards, Bloom demonstrates the vital importance of NYCHA’s maintenance staff to the preservation and success of our public housing system.

V.S.

PublicHousingMyths_coverSince the mid-1990s, and in contrast to so many other cities, the landscapes of nearly all NYCHA developments have been renovated with an eye toward decreasing the likelihood of vandalism and increasing the usefulness of the space through design changes. Grassy areas have been rehabbed in many cases, benches added or restored in configurations designed to maximize sociability and casual surveillance of entrances, additional basketball courts and jungle gyms constructed, and attractive steel fencing has replaced flimsy chain link along nicely paved walkways. Many NYCHA developments also have community garden plots that are popular with residents. Much of the landscape redesign developed in consultation with resident from the developments. Some of these renovated landscapes are, however, already starting to show signs of wear as budget cuts, vandalism, and heavy use take their toll. Most community centers have also been renovated over the past two decades, and many new centers built since the 1990s, some designed by leading architects, bring color and life to development grounds.[1] Johnson Houses’ new community center, for instance, dramatically transformed one entire area of the development with an indoor basketball court, a child care center, and other community amenities.

NYCHA has also devoted enormous resources to elevator maintenance and renovation since the 1970s. Without functioning elevators, high-rise systems cannot function at all. Many cities proved unable to keep their elevators in serviceable condition even in the early years of development life. Chicago in the early 1980s had one-third of its elevators out on a daily basis. By the 1970s, by contrast, NYCHA employed 350 mechanics solely devoted to the maintenance of the approximately three thousand elevators in the developments. Their work had become so essential to maintaining the system that a labor action in 1973, which pulled repairmen from the front lines, led within a few days to at least twelve thousand residents without elevator service: four hundred of the three thousand elevators had already stalled out.[2] By 1988, NYCHA’s elevator staff had grown to 390 full-time repairmen.

Jacob Riis Houses | Photo by David Schalliol

NYCHA elevators still experience considerable wear and tear, some of it in the normal course of events (over a billion rides per year by hundreds of thousands of residents), but a significant number of outages are the result of vandalism. For instance, teenagers “surfed” the tops of elevators for fun in the 1970s; even today, elevators are frequently vandalized or mistreated out of either antisocial attitudes or frustration at slow speeds. Over two-thirds of all elevators have been replaced in the last decade, and remote sensing of elevators now enables more efficient monitoring of their condition. A major push by the authority to add elevator repair personnel and upgrade elevator service, after embarrassing revelations about repair service in 2009, has apparently met with operational success (Table 4.2). As of 2013, the authority employed a staff of 459 elevator repairmen for its 3,324 elevators (and this division is budgeted for 524 employees), a ratio better than most privately run buildings in the city and a significant boost from just a few years ago. On my visits over the years to NYCHA developments I have frequently occasioned on elevator repairmen in some phase of their work. The amount of funding poured into elevators may, however, be undermining other areas of maintenance.[3]

My impression on visits, both formal and informal over the years, is that the authority still maintains a hierarchical organization with clearly defined responsibilities. This system is partly responsible for the higher standards maintained as compared to public housing in other cities. The large number of employees in one job title, that of caretaker, is particularly crucial to NYCHA’s survival. Their daily tasks are described in Table 4.3, and nearly every manager I spoke with stressed the crucial importance of daily custodial functions in maintaining the livability of NYCHA developments, no matter the location. Significant daily vandalism and littering could, within just a few days, make development grounds entirely unlivable.

Workers at the Polo Grounds Towers | Photo by David Schalliol

Many of the NYCHA caretakers are recruited from resident seasonal workers on NYCHA grounds. The authority has an incentive to upgrade the income of its residents (it can raise their rents) and the caretaker role is relatively well paid (starting at $26,000) and unionized. It is also a physically taxing and frustrating job because of the hard treatment meted out by residents and visitors in many buildings. Approximately 38 percent of NYCHA employees, many of them caretakers, still live in NYCHA apartments. There is no civil service requirement for caretaker (nor is a high school diploma required); caretakers mostly learn on the job, yet they are encouraged and subsidized by the union to gain skills that will lead them to higher-level jobs. I met many supervisors and managers on my visits who began as seasonal help or caretakers but worked their way up within NYCHA ranks. In essence, the system not only maintains the buildings but also functions as a successful antipoverty program. Other cities are just experimenting with this system today, but NYCHA has maintained it for decades with relative success. Managers believe that having residents as employees enhances the connection between residents and NYCHA. Some managers did note anecdotally that they tend to have additional problems in work habits, competency, and technical ability with some employees recruited from resident populations.

NYCHA better maintained its public housing than other cities, but the longevity of this housing presents its own challenges as buildings age, rent returns stagnate, and operating subsidies decrease. Criticism has been growing from many residents who, accustomed to higher levels of service in the past, experience delays in apartment repairs including walls, ceilings, bathrooms, kitchens, and windows. In 2005, for instance, the percentage of apartments with one or more observable maintenance defect was just 3.2 percent according to an independent city analysis. This was a remarkable accomplishment in light of the age of the buildings and various social issues systemwide. In 2008, however, that figure had jumped to 8.5 percent. Between 2008 and 2011, conditions declined further. In 2008, for instance, only 5.5 percent of NYCHA units had 5 or more deficiencies (a very serious situation), but by 2011 that same figure had risen to 8.8 percent of units.[4] The number of units with three or more deficiencies in 2011 was 34.8 percent, a rate 10 percent higher than other rent regulated rentals citywide. Even taking into account differences in sampling methods and standards over time, a decline in maintenance is evident since 2000; a change confirmed by many resident leaders, community activists, and federal reviews.[5]

Declining standards are the result of a number of factors, beyond the aging infrastructure of the system as a whole. Above all, NYCHA experienced reductions in maintenance and other skilled trade staff as a result of federal and city budget cuts since 2001. NYCHA employs a total of 670 skilled maintenance workers systemwide in 2013, yet, if actually fully funded by HUD, would have 800 maintenance workers on development grounds (this figure does not include other skilled trades and contract private-sector staff who complete more comprehensive repairs). As some employees told me, sometimes you can “do more with less,” but sometimes “less is less.” Despite workers clearing approximately two million systemwide repair work orders per year, a backlog of 333,000 nonemergency repair calls had developed by early 2013, with some residents given work tickets for repairs years in the offing because of skilled trade shortages. Managers, understandably, focused remaining human resources on emergency calls. Repair teams in FY2012 may have taken, on average, thirty days to resolve a nonemergency request, often involving a skilled trade for work such as plastering or painting, but only 7.5 hours to resolve an emergency service request.[6]

Hallway at the Polo Grounds Towers | Photo by David Schalliol

Organizational issues likely compounded the staff cutbacks. A centralized call center system, borrowed from the private-sector model, seems to have added confusion and created delays in fulfilling repairs. In this system, tenant calls are evaluated based upon seriousness and sent to either development-based maintenance workers or floating “skilled trades” teams rather than addressed directly by development-based staff as was usual in the past. Some workers believed that rather than smoothing the process of making repairs, the call center added errors and redundant visits. Declining labor relations between NYCHA management and its unionized staff, because of cutbacks in overtime and staffing levels, may also have contributed to the backlog.

With growing public awareness of these problems, and a boost in funding from city officials, administrators have introduced major initiatives to improve conditions. NYCHA has reorganized procurement and repair protocols and initiated a task force to deal with the backlog of orders generated by the declining buildings and call center activity. Skilled trades, in an innovative program expanded in 2011–2012, now complete thousands of repairs, including all outstanding work tickets, in a single development in a matter of weeks. Maintenance staff are also being added or at least rehired; and it appears that a certain amount of repairmen/contractors were hired outside union rules in order to expedite repairs.[7] By December of 2013, NYCHA had reduced the apartment backlog to just 48,000 through expedited repairs, extra staff, flexible hours, and more efficient follow-up. Fall 2013 PHAS reviews by HUD independent reviewers, showing a 20 percent improvement in apartment scores, confirmed this progress. NYCHA has also created a comprehensive website, NYCHA Metrics, showing recent performance levels in most of the Authority’s operations; the figures provided, not yet verified by an independent study, indicate continued progress in meeting both emergency and non-emergency repair demands in 2014.[8]

Apartment in the Polo Grounds Towers | Photo by David Schalliol

Despite the catch-up in repairs, and a new focus on elevators, major capital issues still need to be addressed in thousands of these aging structures. In fact, the large number of resident maintenance requests is related, in part, to the declining state of major systems such as exterior walls, plumbing, and windows that create multiple, and often recurring, problems inside apartments. Since the 1990s, over $7 billion has been spent on capital renovation, including brick repointing, elevator replacement and overhaul, window replacement, new heating systems, new roofs, and new appliances. The red-brick uniformity of NYCHA design may not be to everyone’s liking aesthetically, but the repetition has enabled relatively cost-effective contracting and renovation of brickwork, roofs, elevators, and windows. Fort Greene Houses, for instance, was coming off a decade-long round of renovation in 2013 when I visited, with total costs of approximately $250 million. Among the many renovations in the apartment houses were newly installed stairs, new floors, new elevators, and complete apartment reconfigurations that finally remedied longstanding quality issues.

Exterior door at the Rangel Houses | Photo by David Schalliol

Yet ever more aging NYCHA developments need updating as the mass of housing constructed in the postwar era reaches its projected life span. In 2011, for instance, 255 developments were thirty years old or more, and eighty-four developments were between forty to forty-nine years old. Most NYCHA developments were designed with a projected fifty-year life span. Federally financed capital funds (much reduced since the 1990s), new annual subsidies secured for formerly city and state developments (known as federalization), additional city funds, and the recent federal stimulus have addressed only some deferred maintenance. A 2013 study estimated that over a twenty-year period, NYCHA would have to spend $17 billion to renovate its entire apartment stock and building systems. With a steady decline in federal capital and operating subsidies over the past decade, resulting from successful Republican opposition to social programs, other solutions are being sought to renew NYCHA such as city bond sales, rent increases, staff reductions, and even leasing of open land on NYCHA properties for new developments.[9]

Jacob Riis Houses | Photo by David Schalliol

Residents, and resident leaders, have been widely featured in recent years on the pages of The Daily News, New York Post and The New York Times complaining about various, and growing, problems they have with NYCHA administrators and quality of life. Survey results, however, reveal a more complicated picture of NYCHA existing outside the political realm. An extensive survey by Baruch College in 2010 that questioned one thousand residents in housing developments and six hundred Section 8 voucher holders (in privately run housing) found that voucher holders do have a better view of their buildings, apartments, and neighborhood conditions than project-based public housing residents. But the survey as a whole did not demonstrate the overwhelming superiority of the voucher programs in creating a high-quality urban existence; nor do the results provide a justification for drastic redevelopment of public housing in New York. For instance, “approximately 66 percent of residents in conventional public housing are satisfied with their apartments and their neighborhood compared with 80 percent of voucher holders” and “70 percent of public housing residents rate their apartment positively as a place to live; and more than 80 percent of voucher holders rate their housing unit favorably.” In light of the dramatic difference in typology, conditions, and management between public housing and most Section 8 apartments, this difference is not that striking. The survey also found that most public housing “respondents consider[ed] their apartments to be a good value.” One of the brightest spots in the survey was NYCHA staff: “85% of residents [are] satisfied with how NYCHA staff treats them when performing repairs.” Resident leaders I have spoken with, such as Ethel Velez at Johnson Houses, generally say nice things about their local caretakers, but also believe that they and other NYCHA staff are spread thinner than in the past. Residents so value NYCHA apartments that they, and activists who support them, have beaten back any serious discussion of widespread demolition or redevelopment of the type pursued in other cities.[10]

Maintenance staff member at the Polo Grounds Towers | Photo by David Schalliol

These surprisingly positive reviews from critical New Yorkers, rarely published in the press, are clearly the result of the extensive human system in place. Where maintenance staffing levels are high, management strong, and renovation recent, as at Ravenswood, Johnson, or Rangel Houses, the quality of upkeep of everything from entryways to playgrounds is indistinguishable from a well-managed private-sector apartment complex (and probably better than many apartment buildings in poor neighborhoods). Similar efforts are made at socially troubled developments such as Bushwick and Van Dyke Houses, but maintaining a high standard is more challenging as a result of vandalism and deferred maintenance.[11] As in any institution, context, funding, and the work ethic are variable, but without the thousands of hard-working employees, the high-rises would have become unlivable decades ago. That New York defies conventional wisdom when it comes to high-rise public housing is indicated by the fact that activists, and most city officials, are actively seeking ways to preserve this housing system rather than demolish it.

The above text is reprinted from Nicholas Dagen Bloom, “MYTH #4 High-Rise Public Housing Is Unmanageable,” in Public Housing Myths: Perception, Reality, and Social Policy, edited by Nicholas Dagen Bloom, Fritz Umbach, and Lawrence J. Vale. Used by permission of the publisher, Cornell University Press.

Rangel Houses | Photo by David Schalliol

Nicholas Dagen Bloom is Chair of Interdisciplinary Studies and Urban Administration at NYIT’s Columbus Circle campus. He has written many books on urban affairs including Public Housing That Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century (Penn Press, 2008). He is co-editor of two new collections: Public Housing Myths: Perception, Reality, and Social Policy and Affordable Housing in New York.

A Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago, David Schalliol is academically and artistically interested in issues of social stratification and meaning in the social and physical worlds. His writing and photographs have appeared in such publications as The American Sociologist, Design Observer, and Revue Gest, as well as in numerous exhibitions, including the inaugural Belfast Photo Festival and the Museum of Contemporary Photography’s Midwest Photographers Project. Schalliol contributed to “Highrise: Out My Window,” an interactive documentary that won the 2011 International Digital Emmy for Non-Fiction. His book, Isolated Building Studies, was published by Utakatado in 2014.

The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or The Architectural League of New York.


NOTES:

[1] Bloom, Public Housing That Worked, 45– 76, 128– 51, 245– 68.

[2] Max Siegel, “Elevator Crisis in City Projects,” New York Times, 4 July 1973, 1.

[3] City of New York, “Mayor’s Office of Operations (2012),” CPR: Agency Performing Reports, retrieved from http://www.nyc.gov/html/ops/cpr/html/themes/community.shtml; chart reproduced from http://www.nyc.gov/html/ops/downloads/pdf/mmr0912/nycha.pdf; Bloom, Public Housing That Worked, 245– 68.

[4] Department of Housing Preservation and Development, Housing New York City 2008, retrieved from http://www.nyc.gov/html/hpd/html/pr/HVS-Archive.shtml, 476, 489; Department of Housing Preservation and Development, Housing New York City 2008, retrieved from http://www.nyc.gov/html/hpd/downloads/pdf/HVS-report-2011.pdf, 447.

[5] Office of the Comptroller, How New York Lives: An Analysis of the City’s Housing Maintenance Conditions, September 2014, retrieved at http://comptroller.nyc.gov/wp-content/uploads/documents/How_New_York_Lives.pdf, 7, 11.

[6] City of New York, “Mayor’s Office of Operations (2012).”

[7] Bloom, Public Housing That Worked, 181– 200, 220– 40, 245– 68.

[8] http://www.nyc.gov/html/nycha/downloads/pdf/hra-advisors-nycha-rehabilitation-replacement-20130816.pdf; http://www.nyc.gov/html/nycha/html/news/maintenance-and-repair-backlog-action-plan.shtml, retrieved 4 December 2013.

[9] http://www.nyc.gov/html/ops/downloads/pdf/mmr0912/nycha.pdf. See also http://www.nyc.gov/html/nycha/downloads/pdf/hra-advisors-nycha-rehabilitation-replacement-20130816.pdf; http://www.nyc.gov/html/nycha/html/news/nycha-releases-economic-impact-reports.shtml, retrieved 4 December 2013.

[10] http://www.nyc.gov/html/nycha/downloads/pdf/j11apre.pdf.

[11] George L. Kelling and Catherine M. Coles, Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities (New York: Free Press, 1998).



One Response to “Maintaining NYCHA: Debunking the Myth of Unmanageable High-Rise Public Housing”

  1. Great piece! Incredible to think that the vast majority of elevators must be replaced in less than a decade – what waste. To create longer lasting elevators that more closely match a buildings projected lifetime would be parallel to Elon Musk’s vision of “reusable rockets”, reducing resource use from repair components and new units immensely.

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