During a sunny Saint Patrick’s Day weekend, reporters gathered anxiously outside of the monolithic Taft Houses in East Harlem waiting for the day’s main attraction: Governor Andrew Cuomo. When he finally arrived, in grand fashion with a posse of local politicians behind him, reporters were treated to an exclusive tour of some of the decaying apartments in the enormous complex. New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) has been in a state of crisis over the past year dealing with a massive budget deficit of $286.6 million as well as being rocked by a lead paint scandal that saw the firing of top officials. Responding to the crisis, Cuomo has positioned himself as NYCHA’s savior in chief.
During the tour with reporters, the governor examined the plethora of problems plaguing the nearly 600,000 residents who depend on public housing in an ever more unaffordable city. From pealing paint, water leaks, vermin infestation and broken appliances the governor was given a firsthand look at the inhuman conditions many New Yorkers are forced to endure.
“There is no one who will see what I saw and allow it to continue”, the Governor said. Later he said that the state of the disrepair was utterly “disgusting”.
After the tour Cuomo gave an impassioned speech and held a press conference with residents who were oddly wearing orange hats reading in bold print “TENANTS UNITED”, an obvious jab at Trump’s “Make America Great Again” hat. In his speech Cuomo vowed to take action by pledging an additional $250 million on top of the $300 million he already promised to invest in New York’s public housing stock. He made sure to remind reporters even though “the state has no financial responsibility” to fund NYCHA, he was going to fight to secure the funds anyway.
Refusing to take any responsibility for the crisis, Cuomo blasted the mayor for his inaction and challenged President Trump to put his money where his mouth is
“If he really wants to make America great again he should show the people more money,” Cuomo said.
The whole event seemed to be an elaborate photo op with the intention of portraying the governor as the great white hope for the majority color NYCHA residents. It was an attempt of heroic posturing by an opportunist politician with presidential ambitions. His speech came across as self-serving and pompous. He also absolved himself of any blame for the crisis and acted as if he were surprised by the decay he saw even though he played a role in that decay.
“At one time, NYCHA was the model of public housing, and now conditions are at the worst they’ve ever been” he said. “Tenants living in these intolerable, inhumane conditions need help now – not in four years, and this administration is taking action to ensure a brighter future for New Yorkers,”
Cuomo’s allusions to the heyday of public housing and its prospects for a “brighter future” is rather ironic given the significant role Cuomo played in the federal divestment and dismantling of public housing across the country. The governor failed to mention that as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Cuomo oversaw the wholesale destruction of public housing in cities such as Chicago, Baltimore and Philadelphia. During the Clinton Administration Cuomo served as Secretary of HUD from 1997-2001. Before that he served as the Assistant Secretary for Community Planning and Development from 1993-1997. During his tenure, HUD underwent major policy shifts in accordance with the rise of the post-Cold War national neoliberal agenda that saw the decline in union membership, cuts to social safety nets, deregulation of the financial sector and the privatization of the public sector. Clinton’s HUD was no longer in the business of building public housing nor its upkeep. Making this perfectly clear during his campaign for president in 1992, Clinton portrayed himself as “a new Democratic” who was tough on crime and was keen to “end welfare as we have come to know it”. His White House began pushing major right wing “reforms” that made Ronald Regan look like FDR. One of Clinton’s most damaging attacks on poor and working-class Americans was the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWORA) that ended “welfare as we know it” and effectively make poverty a crime.
It was this pathological attitude towards the working-class and the poor that governed the policies that Cuomo actively supported as Secretary of HUD. As Assistant Secretary and then Secretary Cuomo oversaw the destruction of over 100,000 public housing units across the nation. Out of all the cities impacted Chicago was hit the hardest. In Chicago alone 60,000 people lost their housing along with their sense of community. HOPE VI, first implemented in phases back in 1992, was the federal program that incentivized cities to privatize their public housing by subsidizing mixed income developments. The policy became law in 1998 with the passage of the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act, leading to the accelerated demolition of public housing.
Another consequence of HOPE VI was the criminalization of public housing residents. Clinton promoted the false idea that public housing was infested with criminal gangs that were terrorizing helpless residents. He insisted upon a “One strike, you’re out” policy that would evict any public housing resident convicted of a crime. Six months after the passage of HOPE VI into law 3,847 people were evicted from public housing. Housing developments across the country saw a dramatic 84% increase in the number of evictions. HOPE VI left thousands of mostly black and Latino Americans hopelessly wondering why yet again their government was at war with them. It was not the first time urban America was displaced because of federal policy. Back in the 1960’s the federal government implemented the controversial Urban Renewal policies that reshaped the landscape of American cities. Local governments with federal approval sized land through eminent domain under the guise of slum clearance. Civil Rights activists were appalled at the hundreds of thousands of forced evictions and the destruction of historical black communities.
“Most Northern cities now are engaged in something called urban renewal, which means moving the Negroes out.” Author James Baldwin eloquently said. “It means Negro removal, that is what it means. The federal government is an accomplice to this fact.” HOPE VI is the modern equivalent.
As the public face of HUD, Cuomo’s role was to sell Americans on “negro removal” in a palatable way. The language used to justify HOPE VI was never overtly racist. In fact, HOPE VI was marketed as the best way to undo the mistakes made by previous HUD policies. Increasingly public housing was viewed, and still is viewed, as an antiquated policy disaster that increasingly concentrated poor people in isolated housing blocks. The problems of public housing had nothing to do, according to HUD, with underfunding and neglect. The blame fell on the design of the buildings and the concentration of poverty. Academics such as William Julius Wilson and Douglas S. Massey provided the research backing up the claims that the concentration of the poor lead to the supposed failure of public housing. If that were true, then the solution seemed simple: break up public housing. However, many academics have called concentrated poverty a myth that hurts the poor
“The theory of concentrated poverty is based on a faulty theoretical premise—namely, that concentrated poverty can be severed from its root causes and projected as the focal point of social policy” Distinguished Professor Stephen Steinberg at Queens College said. “It’s rather like diagnosing a melanoma as a blemish and treating it with a palliative.”
Still poverty as pathology served as the ideological impetus that justified the neoliberal destruction of public housing. Its outcome saw a large-scale land grab that transferred public land serving the public good into private hands for corporate profits. All of which was administered by the now governor Andrew Cuomo. To this day Cuomo believes the myth of concentrated poverty and its supposed key role in the “failure” of public housing. In his book All Things Possible Cuomo said that “the projects are an example of good government gone bad. The people the government is trying to help are actually going to be hurt, and when it fails, it will destroy the surrounding neighborhood.”
In the speech he gave outside of the Taft Houses, Cuomo said that public housing was “really a home-to-prison pipeline.” And that crime starts “in the neighborhood. It starts in the housing complex, and it starts many times in public housing.”
Cuomo’s disdain for government-funded public housing was reflected in the polices he enacted while he was secretary of HUD. Instead of advocating for the construction of more public housing Cuomo was an avid cheerleader in its destruction. It’s their place. He publicly endorsed privately run mixed income developments that didn’t nearly begin to replace the housing that was lost. He promoted free market solutions to addressing urban decay with such schemes as the expansion of the Empowerment Zone Program (EZ). In a nutshell EZ’s incentivized business to locate to predominately black and Latino intercity communities by providing corporate income tax credits, property tax abatements, and other tax exemptions with the idea of spurring economic growth and providing poor people with jobs. It also allocated funds to non-profit social service agencies. Cities such as Baltimore were desperate for federal assistance and enthusiastically joined the program with mixed results. One study found that the program actually cost city governments $2.5 billion in tax revenue. Some Baltimore residents found the program to be undemocratic and failed to address or take into account the real needs in the community.
“The process must reflect a true perception of neighborhood needs from those who live there,” Baltimore native Leonard Jackson said.
In a 2001 study Howard Samuels State Management and Policy Center found that EZ’s programs were complete failures “Our findings suggest the EZ program has fallen far short of its stated goals” they said. “In fact, little changed in any of the cities or Zones with regard to the major goals set forth in the legislation and the regulations outlined by HUD.”
Besides Empowerment Zones there is some evidence to suggest that Cuomo’s polices at HUD may have contributed to the 2008 subprime mortgage bubble. Senator Jon Corzine believed that HUD’s policy goals throughout the 1990’s was focused on “integrating lower-income communities into the free market and creating renewal initiatives that spur private sector investment in both urban and rural communities.”
He goes on to say that “HUD has also helped America reach its highest homeownership rate ever–67.7%–and in the process helped African-American and Latino households attain record levels of homeownership.”
HUD achieved that homeownership rate by making a deal with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to increase the number of loans purchased by low-income borrowers. By greatly inflating the numbers Cuomo’s shortsighted tactics contributed in part to the Great Recession as well as the loss of the overall net worth for black families. From the years 2007-10 black wealth declined by 30% as a result of the economic crisis. After 2009 black median wealth fell from $12,124 a year to $5,677 a year. By comparison white median wealth fell from $134,992 annually to $113,149. Clearly Cuomo’s plan for “integrating lower-income communities into the free market” ended up becoming a nightmare for low-income black Americans.
All this to say for a man who now wants to make himself the avenger of public housing. Cuomo’s track record alone should make public housing residents run from his very presence at their door steps. None of this even takes into account the damage he has done as Governor of New York. Alarmingly at his press conferences over the past few weeks Cuomo has hinted and threatened to have the state directly take over NYCHA. Giving Cuomo more power over NYCHA is like making the fox in charge of the chicken coop. Who is to say what plans the governor might have to fix public housing. It would be easy for him to begin full scale privatization efforts under the guise of city mismanagement of the crisis. A crisis that could have been averted back in 2015 when Mayor De Blasio requested that the state provide $100 million in emergency funding for roof repair. Cuomo refused to fork over the cash unless the money was used for cosmetic upgrades such as landscaping and playground equipment. Now, three years later the governor wants to swoop in to NYCHA’s rescue? It would be wise for New Yorkers to be suspicious of the governor’s intentions. Public housing should not be used as a pawn in a political game for power. If Cuomo wants to truly help New Yorkers living in public housing, he would fully invest in a public housing Marshall Plan not more back door privatization.