How a controversial plan will change the way New York City public housing works : Code Switch The New York City Housing Authority is the biggest public housing program in the country. But with limited funding to address billions of dollars of outstanding repairs, NYCHA is turning to a controversial plan to change how public housing operates. Fanta Kaba of WNYC's Radio Rookies brings the story of how this will affect residents and the future of housing, as a resident of a NYCHA complex in the Bronx herself.

New York City public housing is getting less public. How does that affect residents?

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GENE DEMBY, HOST:

What's good, y'all? You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby. If you lived in or near a big city in the United States over the last 2 1/2 decades, you have probably seen it or maybe just heard it.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Today is demolition day at Pruitt-Igoe.

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DEMBY: High-rise public housing projects being blown up by explosives.

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DEMBY: All these buildings crumbling to the ground in giant clouds of dust and smoke. But it wasn't just the buildings that were blown up, but also, this big, audacious dream of social reformers from the early 20th century. That dream was to make sure that poor and working people in big cities had someplace safe and affordable to live.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Ten million American families - one-third of the human resources of American democracy - are, today, living in slums. House in very bad condition and infested with rats, roaches...

DEMBY: That's the way the United States Housing Authority described the state of affairs in the 1930s. That short film was about the need for this then new idea - public housing - to be subsidized by the local government and with money from Washington. New York City was the starting point for this bold, new idea. The city had whole neighborhoods made up of squalid, dangerously overcrowded tenements.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: A happy day it is for every family that can escape from the misery of a slum home and environment.

DEMBY: And so New York built a lot of public housing so that people could escape the misery of their slum homes, as that dude we heard just put it. In lots of New York neighborhoods, the projects are defining features of the landscape. Tall, nearly identical brown brick apartment buildings with big courtyards that seemed to stretch on for blocks and blocks at a time. It was a model for public housing that much of the rest of the country would follow. But in New York, the scale of it is on a whole nother level. So depending on who was doing the counting, there are anywhere between 360,000 and a million people living in public housing in New York City. That's a population around the size of Boston or New Orleans. That means on the high end, something like one in eight New Yorkers lives in public housing, and it makes the city's public housing authority the biggest landlord in the whole country.

Back when they were first built, the projects used to be almost exclusively and purposely all white in New York City and elsewhere. Today, though, almost 90% of the people who live in them are Black or Latinx, although there is a growing Asian American population living in those complexes, too. Perhaps not unrelatedly, the initial commitment to public housing from the Fed, state and local governments, did not last. The money and support for them dried up, and over time, all those properties started to fall into disrepair.

The projects were supposed to solve some of the biggest problems facing American cities. Instead, they became a kind of shorthand for all the problems facing Black inner cities - crime and drugs and concentrated poverty. So after decades of neglect, by the 1990s, more and more cities started tearing them down and demolishing their housing projects, as we heard.

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DEMBY: In New York City, though, most of the projects are still standing, but the current state of affairs, that's just not really working for anybody, especially all the people who live in those buildings. Fanta Kaba is one of those residents, and Fanta has been digging into this for WNYC's Radio Rookies program. What's good with you, Fanta?

FANTA KABA, BYLINE: Hey, Gene. Happy to be here.

DEMBY: And, Fanta, you've been reporting on this huge story that maybe not enough people are paying attention to.

KABA: Yeah. So for several years now, New York, like cities around the country, has been trying out a new idea - inviting private developers and companies to take over their public housing.

DEMBY: I don't know. That's already making my antenna twitch. I don't know.

KABA: Yeah. It brings up so many hard questions and choices. And I've realized that this is really all about money and the fact that public housing doesn't really have much of it anymore.

DEMBY: Right.

KABA: But remember, this is New York City. Everyone wants to be here, but there's no space, and you can't forget - it's really expensive. So a lot of people are worried that these plans are just a way to turn these buildings and the land they sit on into something else, a system with private landlords and a profit motive and everything that comes with that.

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DEMBY: And so on this episode, what happens when public housing goes private? A whole lot of the poorest residents of America's biggest city, who are almost all people of color, are about to find out.

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DEMBY: Before we get into the weeds of all this, we should get to know a little bit more about who is reporting the story and get a sense of why this story is so important to her. Fanta, who you just met, is 17, and she wants to be a journalist one day. But real talk, y'all, she's already pretty good at it.

KABA: I feel like it's just a combination of all the things I love doing. Like, I love to talk to people, I love to write and I feel like journalism is just, like, a combination of those things.

DEMBY: Are you nosy?

KABA: A little bit.

(LAUGHTER)

KABA: I am. I am.

DEMBY: It's good to be nosy. We get paid, basically, to be nosy.

KABA: Yeah. Exactly. You get paid to mind other people's business.

DEMBY: This crossroads that the city is facing, it hits real close to home for Fanta and her family.

KABA: OK. I live in the Bronx. I live in Mott Haven, and it's, like, a NYCHA complex.

DEMBY: NYCHA stands for the New York City Housing Authority.

KABA: And basically, they are in charge of all the public housing in New York City.

DEMBY: And so you live in the Mott Haven houses. And so there are a lot of buildings, right...

KABA: Yeah.

DEMBY: ...In the Mott Haven houses. How would you describe your apartment that you live in? Your family's apartment?

KABA: It's definitely evolved over time. Like, when we first moved in, we had, like, the generic, like, the bland walls that come with the apartment. And then my mom started putting a lot of time into, like, decorating the apartment and trying to make it feel like home for us. So then at first it was like this, like, really ugly teal color, but now it's...

DEMBY: Teal? Oh, my gosh.

KABA: Yeah. It was teal, but there's a whole bunch of, like, words and, like, sayings in Arabic and, like, Quranic verses. And also, just, like, family pictures on the wall.

DEMBY: Fanta's parents are from Guinea in West Africa, and along with Fanta's oldest sister, they came to the United States in 2001 and they bounced around, like, a lot. They were all over New York, they spent some time in North Carolina, even, and they all eventually ended up in the Bronx, living in Fanta's grandmother's apartment. So if you can imagine, it was Fanta, her five siblings, her parents, her grandparents, her aunts, her uncles.

Can remember how many people total it was?

KABA: I don't even know. I would have to, like, count, like, with my hands and toes. Like, so many of us.

DEMBY: Fanta figured it out. There were 15. Fifteen of her relatives all crammed into a two-bedroom apartment, and eventually, they all had to leave that apartment, too. And that's when her family ended up in a shelter.

Do you remember how long you were there?

KABA: I think maybe for a year. I don't know, like, that time is kind of, like, blurry for me. Like, I...

DEMBY: Yeah. I see.

KABA: ...Can't remember exactly how long we were there, but it was, like, a year or two years.

DEMBY: You said it's blurry for you when you think about that time. What do you sort of feel like when you think about that time?

KABA: I kind of have mixed feelings about it because, like, of course it was better because we had more space than, like, just being cramped in my grandma's apartment, but because it was a shelter, like, it's obviously a temporary situation. It felt like we were just, like, I don't know, like, in transition for, like, a year and a half, basically, like, we were just like, we really didn't have a home or, like, anywhere to call home. And, like, me and my siblings, we were all sharing, like, one room. All six of us in one room.

DEMBY: Wow.

KABA: And, like, we couldn't have, like, cable. We didn't talk to our neighbors. We didn't know anybody on the floor. Like, we were just, like, living there. And we had, like, a curfew. So I couldn't go to after school because my after school ended at 6:30 and, like, the curfew was, like, 7:00.

DEMBY: When Fanta was 10, she said her family finally got out of that shelter and got into public housing. It was in a neighborhood she didn't really know that well, and it was a few miles away from where her grandmother lived, and they had to move on a hot, summer afternoon. Getting there was a journey.

KABA: And then I remember, like, the day we moved in and, like, we were bringing all our stuff, like, we didn't take the train. I don't know why, but we walked all the way from my grandma's house to Mott Haven. Like, we walked. I don't even know how far. Like, we walked for so long. And I was like, why...

DEMBY: Wow.

KABA: ...Are we walking? Like, why aren't we taking the bus? And it's 'cause we are hauling, like, all of our stuff, like...

DEMBY: Oh, yeah.

KABA: ...In, like, shopping carts and, like, laundry bags, like, so we were just, like, walking the whole time, like...

DEMBY: Oh, man. And so all of y'all are obviously carrying stuff, right? Even the little kids are carrying stuff, right?

KABA: Yeah, we were all carrying stuff. Yeah.

DEMBY: Wow. Do you remember your first day at the apartment?

KABA: I do, actually.

DEMBY: Oh. Do you?

KABA: Yeah. We went to the apartment when it was empty, so there was, like, nothing there. And, like, child me, I was, like, so unimpressed. I was like, we're like, I didn't ask for this, like, where's my pink bedroom? But then my mom was like, yeah, like, it takes time.

DEMBY: She's like you're going to get this teal bedroom...

KABA: Yeah.

DEMBY: ...Or something like that.

KABA: I live on the second floor. So there's this, like, small area in front of the building with, like, benches. And there's always, like, older people outside talking or, like, the dads, they would always be, like, fixing cars outside in front of the building. They're just always talking, playing music, laughing.

DEMBY: And so you're on the second floor. So you probably hear a lot of, like, the conversations and stuff, right?

KABA: Yeah. I hear everything. Like, everything. I'm always tuning in and tuning out. I'm like, oh, what's going on today?

DEMBY: See? Nosy. See? See?

(LAUGHTER)

KABA: Like, people in my neighborhood are just very, like, open. They're always saying, like, good morning, good afternoon, how are you? Even if they haven't seen you before or they don't know you, like, they're always very, very kind.

DEMBY: Did you expect them not to be? Like, did you have any sort of preconceived notions about public housing and the people who lived there...

KABA: Yeah.

DEMBY: ...Before you lived there?

KABA: I don't know. Like, when I was younger, I used to be really ashamed that I lived in a project.

DEMBY: Oh, really?

KABA: Yeah. I used to be, like, kind of embarrassed about it. Like, when I was in elementary and middle school, there were a couple of kids that lived in the projects, but they were, like, called ghetto. Like, you're ghetto or, like, you're ratchet if you live in the projects. I became, like, really, like, conscious of, like, my apartment and, like, I just started to feel a little ashamed of it. But now, like, I'm - I don't know, I'm not really ashamed of it anymore. I think it was just, like, a childish thing I had where I was just, like, so concerned about how people saw me.

DEMBY: It's not childish. It makes sense.

KABA: Yeah. I guess not childish, but I was just, like, insecure. Like, I was so, like, oh, what are they going to think about me?

DEMBY: You've been asking all these other people about what NYCHA means to them, but what does it mean to you?

KABA: I guess, if anything, like, NYCHA - specifically, like, my Haven has meant, like, just stability for me and also community. Like, it's different from everywhere else I've lived because, like, almost everything that I, like, wanted in somewhere I, like, would live is, like, in walking distance, like, there's a mosque that I grew up in, basically, just, like, down the block. And then there's a basketball court, there's playgrounds, like, we have neighbors that actually care about us. And, like, I finally got, like, space to have my own room. Like, I don't know. I think of it like a blessing for me. Like, just a blessing.

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DEMBY: There's a sense of security that housing projects like the one Fanta lives in give to residents, but that sense of security is in real danger because, like we said, NYCHA has been bringing in private companies to take over public housing.

KABA: And to be clear, this isn't happening to all NYCHA buildings right now. My building isn't changing anytime soon that I know of. But it's all about the money, which, to most people, shows up as repairs and maintenance that haven't been kept up with, sometimes for years. There are way too many NYCHA residents living with leaks, mold, rats and roaches. Sometimes in the winter, there's no heat or hot water. Even in some complexes, people have gone months without gas, and all of these residents are paying rent that amounts to 30% of their income to live in conditions that no one should have to live in.

DEMBY: So it's kind of hard to miss the irony here that these are a lot of the living conditions that public housing was designed, originally, to fix and address.

KABA: Yeah. And now, the Housing Authority says that in order to repair everything, it would take $78 billion.

DEMBY: Seventy-eight billion dollars. With a B. Just to put that in perspective, like, the city of New York's total budget last year was $107 billion. So, I mean, where's all that money for repairs supposed to come from?

KABA: Well, they know they're not getting it from the government, so they've been inviting private developers and management companies to take over entire housing complexes. Like, they become the building managers, and they get to collect the rent. NYCHA can't take on debt, but these private companies can. And they can take out big loans and use that money to make renovations. This plan puts these buildings under private control for the next 99 years.

DEMBY: So these private developers are being invited to cash in on the leases of the country's biggest landlord for a century, more or less.

KABA: Right. Right. And while Congress has cut money from public housing, which was created as a government program called Section 9, they've put more money into a program called Section 8.

DEMBY: Section 8, which is the housing voucher program that helps low-income people pay their rent.

JAMES RODRIGUEZ: Section 8 creates a subsidy that goes directly into private landlord and developer's pockets.

KABA: I talked to James Rodriguez about this. He's a professor at the City University of New York's School of Labor and Urban Studies, and he specializes in things like public housing and gentrification.

RODRIGUEZ: And so there's a way that we've seen that housing benefit really circumvent actual tenants and is finding a way to create another revenue stream for private capital.

KABA: James said that this plan has allowed NYCHA to turn Section 9 apartments into Section 8 apartments.

RODRIGUEZ: They've already converted nearly 40,000 public housing units into this private property manager structure, and so communities that used to be public housing are actually no longer anymore.

KABA: And since they're running the projects like Section 8, the private companies get money from the government every month for every apartment they manage.

DEMBY: Wow. And again, NYCHA is huge.

KABA: Yeah. It is. There are over 175,000 units.

DEMBY: So yeah, it's kind of obvious why private developers might want to get in on this. It's a real estate play in a place where real estate is really hard to come by. But what are the folks who live in public housing and who now have these developers as their landlords, what do they think about all this?

KABA: Yeah, I wanted to know the same thing.

SONJI LOPEZ: So I was for the conversion because my building was like in a really dilapidated state.

KABA: That's Sonji Lopez. She lives in Betances Houses in the Bronx, which was privatized in 2020.

LOPEZ: Our apartment, like, a lot of things, were, like, falling apart, like, the cabinets and all of that were, like, really old and, like, there are holes in them and everything. Mice and rats were coming in through it. We always had some type of plumbing issue in our building, especially in our apartment. Some leak, you know, like, it was always a problem. So I thought that the conversion would help with all of that, as well.

KABA: Sonji said they showed residents pictures of what their apartments could look like with renovated kitchens and fresh paint.

LOPEZ: I got everyone excited and riled up, like, seeing your own apartment in the pictures and seeing what could be was exciting for a lot of people, and that was the main thing that they discussed.

KABA: At first, Sonji was really excited for these changes. She even appeared in this promo video meant to pitch the private landlords to other NYCHA residents.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: It is more important than ever to maintain quality, affordable housing for all New Yorkers.

LOPEZ: I would say for anyone who's worried about being this place, you can rest assured that that won't happen. I trust that PACT has the resident's best interests in mind.

KABA: PACT is the name of the privatization program that converted Sonji's apartment. But these long-awaited renovations ended up taking months and months. It didn't take long for Sonji to realize that a lot of the repair work they did in her apartment was kind of shoddy.

When do you realize that the renovations weren't all it was, like, cut up to be?

LOPEZ: Oh, the paint was the first thing. The paint started chipping in, like, a matter of days. Mold, also, again, accruing even more than it did with NYCHA. We still had plumbing issues and leaking issues in the building because that wasn't replaced, you know, or, like, heat and hot waters are in the winter. Sometimes we have issues with that, still. That didn't just go away, right? We thought all these things were going to be rectified and brand new when the new developer came in and NYCHA left. But the fact of the matter is, it's a structural thing. It's a building thing.

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KABA: Recently, Human Rights Watch put out a report that found this privatization plan puts residents' rights at risk. The big one is that historically, it's been hard to evict residents in public housing. But this new program makes evicting people easier. And of course, the prospect of those buildings eventually being demolished and going away altogether is looming over all of this.

DEMBY: Yeah. 'Cause there's just not a lot of other housing options for people if that happens.

KABA: After Sonji appeared in that promo video for the private landlord push, she had second thoughts.

LOPEZ: I was actually part of some of the residents who spoke to Human Rights Watch for that report, and I feel like a lot of times, we're afraid, you know, like, when we speak publicly about our situation, when we speak about our apartments, we're afraid that we might get evicted next.

KABA: When Human Rights Watch researchers looked into eviction rates, they found increases at two different developments that had been privatized. One of them was Betances Houses in the Bronx, where Sonji lives. The other one was Ocean Bay Houses in Far Rockaway, the first development to be privatized.

BRENDA TEMPLE: There might be some people that are satisfied and grateful, but all of the people that have been evicted as a result of this process, I feel bad for them. Injustice for one is injustice for all.

KABA: That's Brenda Temple (ph). She's watched as her NYCHA complex was split in two - one half went under private management, and Brenda's half stayed traditional public housing. And while there's not enough data to prove that privatization leads to more evictions, the private half of Brenda's development saw the biggest increase in evictions, according to the Human Rights Watch report.

DEMBY: Yeah. And if you're housing unstable, like so many poor people in big cities like New York, like, losing your home, that's a constant source of worry and anxiety.

KABA: Yeah. And for my family, that was our constant source of anxiety. We bounced around a lot, but ever since we landed in public housing, we haven't had to worry about our rent being raised or, like, if we miss a payment by a little bit, we'll be evicted. Like, I know during quarantine, my mom struggled with getting rent paid on time, like so many other families. But she knew that NYCHA gives you some leeway, you know, because it's public housing, and they're not in it for profit.

DEMBY: And that gives people peace of mind. Or I guess at least it used to. So I'm just thinking about what would happen if you were living in public housing and you got evicted and you don't have a lot of money, obviously. And you now - now you have to find a place to live in a city where the median rent for a one bedroom apartment is over $3,400 a month. Like, what are you supposed to do?

KABA: That's a crazy situation to be in because there are so few options. So public housing residents have nowhere else to go and their living conditions are often terrible. Some people think the best solution is to tear these buildings down and start over. They think the buildings are too far gone.

RODRIGUEZ: We have to, I think, be cautious of even just the narrative that public housing is falling apart.

KABA: That's James Rodriguez again. He's the public housing professor, and he actually lived in public housing up until he got his Ph.D.

RODRIGUEZ: I grew up on the Lower East Side in Rutgers houses. I was born and bred there.

KABA: He's also an organizer working to preserve traditional public housing.

RODRIGUEZ: So yes, there are repair needs. Yes, there are maintenance needs, for sure. But the idea that these buildings are, like, about to come down, I think that that varies quite considerably from neighborhood to neighborhood or community to community.

DEMBY: So just to game out James' point some, you hear people saying that their apartments are falling apart because of decades of neglect and underfunding from the local government, from the federal government. And now you have all these developers who've been in to help fix the problem - I'm doing fix in air quotes. I don't think you really need to be all that conspiracy minded to wonder if all that neglect was maybe on purpose, like, you know, to get things to this point so that private developers could step in?

KABA: Yeah. I've heard that from a lot of the people that I spoke with, like Brenda Temple,

TEMPLE: You know, residents have been suffering with months of no heat, months of no electricity.

KABA: They're scared that this might actually be part of a bigger plan to take their homes away. And eventually...

DEMBY: Eventually find a way to turn them into regular market-rate apartments that go for $3,400 a month.

KABA: Yeah. And for a lot of people, this has been their home for decades, and it feels like NYCHA doesn't really care about what they have to say.

RODRIGUEZ: The move to privatize or not is not something that residents have had any type of authority about whatsoever.

KABA: Since 2016, NYCHA alone has decided which buildings go under private management and when. Tens of thousands of residents have seen their homes privatized without their input. But that's changing.

RODRIGUEZ: After a lot of resident resistance to this plan, legislators and housing officials have introduced a voting option. The idea that residents can choose.

DEMBY: OK. Power to the people. You know what I mean? That sounds like progress. Give the folks who live there a say.

KABA: Yes. Give them a say. And it's complicated.

DEMBY: You know, Fanta, you know we say that a lot on this show.

KABA: Because it is. Do these public housing residents really have a choice?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Something has to be done. Something has to be done.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: It doesn't matter at this point. The point is you cannot remain this way.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: You can't stay this way.

KABA: That's coming up.

DEMBY: Stay with us.

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DEMBY: Gene.

KABA: Fanta.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH. Fanta has been explaining to me that over the last few years, tens of thousands of public housing residents in New York City have seen their homes handed over to private developers.

KABA: And while some people are happy with the change, there's also been a lot of pushback. So recently, NYCHA came up with a different plan. Instead of stepping in and privatizing more buildings without the consent of the people that live there, for the first time, NYCHA is letting residents vote for what will happen to their homes.

DEMBY: I mean, that sounds like a move in the right direction?

KABA: Yeah. But it's not that straightforward because now it's not just a choice between staying in traditional public housing or having private developers take over. And that's because in 2022, New York State came out with another privatization option. James Rodriguez, the public housing professor I talked to, explained it to me.

RODRIGUEZ: The final kind of tactic in this overall privatization push is this new, what they call public housing preservation trust.

KABA: So this public housing preservation trust would basically give NYCHA these new powers, like what the private developers have, and let NYCHA turn all that public housing into Section 8.

DEMBY: OK. OK. So this trust is kind of letting NYCHA create a little loophole for itself to get access to all that Section 8 money?

KABA: Yeah. And it also allows them to take on debt...

RODRIGUEZ: Up to $10 billion in debt.

KABA: ...A lot of it.

DEMBY: So under this new third way, NYCHA is a public program that will be able to take on $10 billion in private debt. But OK, so this is private debt. So what would stop the creditors who hold all the debt from repossessing all these thousands of homes if NYCHA can't pay off the debt? Like, not to be all conspiracy-minded again, but that still gets you to a place where private capital might end up owning all this tasty, New York City real estate.

KABA: Yeah. And that's a big worry. I asked James if that were a possible outcome.

RODRIGUEZ: A thousand percent. And it's not the theoretical, the legislation offers no protection for using the housing as collateral in the event of a default. And the legislation is also quite clear that debt service is their priority. Creditors will get their cut as the primary piece before residents or repairs, and that's something that residents were quite concerned about.

DEMBY: Right. 'Cause these developers are not in this game, you know, out of the kindness of their hearts. You also said that NYCHA can take on up to $10 billion in debt, which, you know, that's a lot of money, but these buildings need something like $78 billion in repairs. So there's still a huge gulf between what this plan makes available and what's needed.

KABA: Yeah.

DEMBY: And you also said those public housing residents already felt some type of way because these decisions were being made without their consent, without their input.

KABA: Yeah. And now with this new trust program on the table, people are confused and distrustful.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) We stopped the trust. We stopped the trust.

KABA: For the last few years, residents have been speaking out about NYCHA's decisions.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Poor people from NYCHA, what private developer do you know that gives a damn about low-income people?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: All right. So just to run this back, basically, if you live in public housing in New York City, these are the three choices on the table for you - the totally private option where a developer just takes over all the leases. Then another option - leave things as they are currently.

KABA: Yep.

DEMBY: And the third option is the trust, which lets NYCHA stay in charge with access to more funds, albeit, you know, with more risk.

KABA: That's right.

DEMBY: OK. So that's a lot. Those are very different options. And I mean, there are people - some of whom have real deep pockets - who have a vested interest in some of these options, which I imagine is coloring the ways that these options are being presented to the people who live in these homes.

KABA: Exactly. So NYCHA held informational meetings for months to try to explain the options to the residents at Nostrand Houses. That's the first development that's going to vote.

DEMBY: Can you tell me a little bit about Nostrand houses? Like, what are they like?

KABA: Well, Nostrand Houses are deep in Brooklyn.

DEMBY: OK.

KABA: And according to the city, the apartments there are in worse conditions than most NYCHA developments. So I went out there to talk to some of the residents.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: I'm not going to say Jack bad about it. I'm really, really not...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: No.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: ...'Cause I can't afford to live anywhere else. As bad as situations might be in my building at this particular moment...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: It's better than outside.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: ...It's better than living in the street.

KABA: I was talking to people the day before the vote started.

Hi...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Hi.

KABA: ...I'm a student journalist, and I'm reporting on the vote that's going on and, like, the renovations that are going on in Nostrand. Do you know about it?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: I barely know. I honestly barely know about it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: I personally have not been to the meeting because I'm very busy.

DEMBY: OK. So we know this is how democracy works, right? Like, just because there's some big, important vote looming doesn't mean everybody's paying attention or can pay attention.

KABA: Exactly. But the people that knew about it had a lot to say about why this vote was happening now and what it might mean for them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: Like, it all looks pretty, but what is really behind this and what is the fine print? 'Cause some of these people have been here for years, and it's like, why have you just took concern in renovating now when people have been complaining about it for, like, this whole time?

KABA: OK. So what do you know about the vote? Like, how much do you know?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: I know not a lot, but I don't know a little bit, neither. I know that I want to go private.

KABA: Why do you feel that way?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: I think it's better for us, the working people that want to go private.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: My opinion about the voting, I don't trust the trust. You know, in my apartment where I lived for the last eight years, I have been waiting for them to come and fix a wall. But it's not much you can complain about because look where you're at. Honestly sit and ask yourself when these people don't have the money to pay, who are they going to get the money from? I believe that if I don't have any money, they're going to put it on the tenants. So I say stick with Section 9.

KABA: How much do you know about the vote?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: Everything. I've been going to the meetings.

KABA: You've been going to the meetings?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: Yeah. The trust. They're the best one at all of them because it's coming to help them to fix everything, not trying to take over. And then voting starts tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KABA: At the informational meetings they've been hosting, there are reps from the trust and the developer side trying to explain what it will mean if residents vote for their programs. But at this meeting, no one was representing the third option - the status quo.

DEMBY: So there wasn't a rep explaining what that might mean?

KABA: I mean, there was a NYCHA rep that claimed to be the neutral party.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: I'm theoretically neutral, you know, I'm NYCHA, I'm just trying to encourage you to vote here. What I will say is that both programs are going to provide the comprehensive repairs. I know that we say that a lot, but it's kind of the best...

DEMBY: OK. But we just heard the supposed neutral party only offer up the two privatization programs as options for getting repairs.

KABA: Yeah. That's how it's being framed. But to be honest, that's the reality for people in public housing. The status quo means things in their house stay broken, and repairs don't get made.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: I really feel that NYCHA, they were slacking.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: OK. So I think, like, that's a really good point in terms of, you know, encouraging people to vote, right? I think my point is, though, is that, you know, we're - we just - we don't have the money to do the repairs that we want. And so that's why, you know, NYCHA, we thought to ourselves, how can we bring in the money?

KABA: And just throw another thing in there, only 20% of the heads of households at the Nostrand Housing project need to turn out for the vote to be binding.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #18: Who made that rule?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: So...

DEMBY: So 80% of the heads of households could just not show up and however the vote goes, that's the way everything moves forward.

KABA: Yeah. And so, like, you're putting people in a position to vote, which is supposed to be democratic and, like, just, like, make sure that everybody has a say. But I don't think, like, all the information is given to residents because they want them to choose what's best. Like, everybody's just, like, giving information to fuel their own motive, which makes it even more confusing. Like, you don't even know who to believe anymore. Like, it's hard.

DEMBY: It seems like you just described American democracy very broadly.

KABA: (Laughter).

DEMBY: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: I mean, it seems like the question at the center of this issue is kind of like, who gets to live in New York? Like, public housing was built on this idea that poor people get to be rightful, full residents of the city, too. But listening to your reporting, Fanta, like, it seems like this is also about this fundamental paradox in the way we think about and talk about housing in this country. Like, housing is at once a necessity, and housing is also a commodity, a financial instrument, an investment opportunity. And the people who live in these NYCHA homes and have to vote on this are sitting right at the center of that tension.

KABA: Yeah. Here's what James Rodriguez, the housing scholar, said to me.

RODRIGUEZ: The fate of the city, what the future of New York City looks like, a lot of that question is going to hang in the balance of how public housing is able to continue or not continue.

KABA: But there are so many other low-income people who aren't even a part of that conversation that are on yearslong waiting lists to even get into public housing. And for some of them, the status quo would be like a godsend, like it was for my family.

DEMBY: If you had to vote on this today, what would you choose? Not to put you on the spot. Are you even old enough to vote, though?

KABA: No. Almost. Almost. Like, four more months and I could vote.

DEMBY: Well, how would you vote if you could?

KABA: Like, I feel like that's one of the things I struggle with the most with this, like, situation because, like, overall, I know the complex needs repairs, like, the building needs repairs, but just hearing about all the things that could happen, it's just something that's scary, you know? There's so many different sides to it, so I think it's hard for me to pick a choice.

DEMBY: Like, it sounds like you're choosing between bad choices...

KABA: Yeah.

DEMBY: ...Or, like, two not great choices.

KABA: And I feel like if the whole premise of the plan is for apartments to be better and people to live in better conditions, people shouldn't feel bad about wanting those things because the things that come along with it aren't as good as a new kitchen.

DEMBY: Yeah. Like, why can't you get the new kitchen and have protections?

KABA: Exactly. Like, why do I have to pick one over the other? Like, one thing I need and another thing I need. So it feels like there is no choice.

RODRIGUEZ: If the choices are between privatization and what NYCHA literally calls the status quo, folks are being really clear in saying things are not going to change in Section 9 public housing. We're not going to work to increase funding at any level to address these issues. And so residents get put into this bind. And it's in many ways a sort of coercive choice between dealing with substandard repair and maintenance issues or moving into a very fraught privatization scheme. So it becomes between a rock and a hard place for residents to make this choice. And I think that's actually quite intended.

KABA: People aren't always going to worry about, like, the implications of this in the future. Like, because they need working water now, because they need a new kitchen now, because they want roaches out of their apartment now, they're going to make the choice that works for them now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: So, Fanta, how did the vote go?

KABA: In the end, the trust won the vote at Nostrand Houses by a pretty wide margin. Almost 60% of votes cast were for the trust. It's going to take a few years to see the effects play out. According to NYCHA, it'll take up to two years to transfer ownership to the trust before construction and repairs can even start.

DEMBY: And we don't know what's going to happen because none of this has ever been done before, right? And you can't just restructure housing for maybe a million people in a city and have it just end there and only affect those people, you know?

KABA: Yeah. It's one huge experiment in a city where almost everybody struggles to pay for housing.

RODRIGUEZ: What we actually need is a movement that takes into account all renters, all working-class folks in the city. And public housing is actually at the center of that, right? Like, the availability of a robust, actual low-income and working-class housing program for renters and tenants in New York City is massively needed.

KABA: But whatever happens, Gene, the model of traditional public housing, like the kind that was a haven for my family, that's probably going to be an option for fewer and fewer people.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: All right, y'all. That's our show. You can follow us on Instagram at @nprcodeswitch, all one word. If email is more your thing, ours is codeswitch@npr.org. And subscribe to the podcast on the NPR app or wherever you get your podcasts. You should definitely check out our newsletter. It drops every week in your inbox. Sign up for that at npr.org/codeswitchnewsletter. And we just wanted to give a quick shout-out to our CODE SWITCH+ listeners. We appreciate y'all, and thank you for being subscribers. When you subscribe to CODE SWITCH+, it means getting to listen to all of our episodes without any sponsor breaks, and it also helps support our show. So if you love our work, if you rock with us, please consider signing up at plus.npr.org/codeswitch.

This episode was produced by Carolina Hidalgo, Courtney Stein, Jess Kung and Xavier Lopez. It was edited by Courtney Stein, Carolina Hidalgo, Jess Kung and Dalia Mortada. Our engineer was Maggie Luthar. And we would be remiss if we did not shout-out the rest of the CODE SWITCH massive. That's Christina Cala, Leah Donnella, Veralyn Williams, Steve Drummond, Lori Lizarraga and B.A. Parker. Big special thanks to WNYC's Radio Rookies program. As for me, I'm Gene Demby.

KABA: And I'm Fanta Kaba.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

KABA: Yurr (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2024 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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