NYC wants to use private developers to fix public housing. The program is thin on oversight.

Private developers would manage 62,000 units with the help of a federal program, but advocates say there are major red flags.

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 11:  Public housing stands in Brooklyn on June 11, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 11: Public housing stands in Brooklyn on June 11, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Due to chronic mismanagement by New York City’s public housing authority, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers are currently living in deteriorating, squalid, and toxic lead paint-filled public housing units, and many of their homes have become overrun with rodents and mold. Conditions have gotten so bad that a federal judge on Wednesday suggested that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development should take over the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) completely, according to the New York Times.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has pitched himself as a champion for the city’s underprivileged residents, has proposed a solution to fix the city’s housing stock: privatization, at least in part. The plan would allow private developers to manage 62,000 NYCHA units with the promise to keep the units affordable for its existing residents, the New York Times reported Thursday. To do this, de Blasio plans on giving tenants federal Tenant Protection Vouchers and by using one of the very few Obama-era federal housing programs embraced by HUD Secretary Ben Carson: the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD).

The city is also considering transferring the air rights of some of its properties to adjacent privately owned buildings and constructing private residential buildings on underused housing authority land, in an effort to generate billions for the repair and maintenance of its buildings, according to the New York Times.

RAD has been hailed by both Republicans and Democrats as the solution to addressing America’s $49 billion backlog in public housing repairs. And the Carson administration plans to dramatically expand the program under his watch.


Through the RAD program, housing authorities partner up with developers who benefit from bonds and tax credits and renovate or rebuild public housing complexes. The private developers get to own and sometimes manage the public housing properties after the project is completed, and they’re required by law to keep each renovated unit affordable, both for existing and for future tenants.

But such a program requires careful, watchful oversight to ensure residents don’t get pushed out and units don’t become a casualty of New York City’s shrinking affordable housing stock that is displacing its low-income population.

While de Blasio has promised the housing authority would retain oversight over the buildings and conduct regular inspections, the idea has plenty of detractors who say the oversight isn’t robust enough. Housing advocates have raised a number of red flags surrounding the federal government’s implementation of the RAD program and the long-term effects it has on existing tenants and whether the units stay affordable in the long-run, according to National Housing Law Project Executive Director Shamus Roller in an Oct. 2017 letter to HUD.

HUD, for instance, has not evaluated the program’s impact on tenants, and advocates found that units with the greatest need for repairs were not being prioritized, Roller wrote. Tenants sometimes received limited information about the revitalization of their unit or where they will be temporarily relocated during construction; they were illegally re-screened after a RAD conversion; and new managers prevented tenants from organizing to address quality-of-life issues.

In March, a Government Accountability Office audit confirmed many of Roller’s concerns, prompting Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) to call for the program’s reform. The audit found HUD was not adequately tracking the amount of private or public money spent on RAD projects, nor was it sufficiently tracking the program’s outcomes, like changes in rent or the relocation of households. And the federal agency also did not assess some potential risks that could jeopardize the long-term affordability of converted units, nor did it enforce tenants’ rights. 


“Without a comprehensive review of household information and procedures for fully monitoring all resident safeguards, HUD cannot fully assess the effects of RAD on residents,” a summary of the audit’s findings read.