Testimony of Kathryn Wylde, President & CEO of the Partnership for New York City, submitted for the City Council Public Housing Committee Hearing on DOI Investigation into Lead-Based Paint Conditions at NYCHA Apartments
Thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony today. We all agree that there can be zero tolerance for exposing children to lead paint poisoning and recognize that this hearing responds to very legitimate concerns about conditions that should not exist in public housing. At the same time, the focus should be on fixing the underlying conditions, not on chastising NYCHA management or the Administration for a bureaucratic error. This is an opportunity for the City Council and all of us to support Shola Olatoye and her team as they struggle against great odds to preserve and renew the nation’s largest inventory of publically-owned affordable housing.
During the past four years, the Partnership has had an opportunity to work with NYCHA leadership on several issues. It is our observation that they are a professional, conscientious and capable group who have made significant strides in overcoming political, financial and bureaucratic challenges that have contributed to the serious deterioration of this essential housing asset.
Debbie Wright, a former HPD Commissioner, and I wrote an op-ed a few weeks ago where we referenced the huge risks of public ownership of affordable housing, pointing out that most other cities blew up or privatized their public housing projects rather than taking on the thankless task of trying to save them. We pushed back against the unrealistic expectations and highly political demands that some officials who should know better are making of NYCHA management, who arguably have the hardest jobs in city government. Among their challenges are inadequate funding, multiple layers of compliance requirements, rigid labor contracts, dilapidated buildings and a tenancy characterized by severe economic and social challenges. Debbie and I contend that you could not find a more capable or committed leader for this enterprise than Shola Olatoye.
The federal government’s commitment to public housing is at a low point, but we cannot let Washington off the hook. It is not feasible for our local tax base to assume responsibility for housing such large numbers of very low-income households without a federal backstop. Attacking NYCHA management for a mistake in a government form is just giving the feds another excuse to cut us off. We need to turn this into a constructive conversation, aimed at helping NYCHA management implement sensible reforms and introduce better systems and new technology. We need to encourage NYCHA to pursue entrepreneurial ventures to raise additional revenues that can help address unmet needs for capital improvements and upgrading of operations.
NYCHA represents a major opportunity for a public-private partnership, drawing upon the resources of the city’s business community, organized labor, and the NGO sector to help identify solutions and advocate for adequate federal funding and regulatory flexibility. At the same time, elected officials will need political courage to make the hard decisions necessary to introduce change at NYCHA. It is easy to attack NYCHA management, but that accomplishes nothing. It will be much harder to develop and implement fiscally responsible solutions to its many problems. That is what we must commit to doing and the Council’s leadership is essential.