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by Charles Lauster Architect, P.C. on February 13, 2014




By Charles Lauster                                                                                                                           February 2014 

CLAblogA challenge facing Bill de Blasio is how to best to make a major impact on providing affordable housing with the city’s meager funding options.  One possible route would be to rebuild the New York City Housing Authority into the greatest public housing agency in the country. It was great once. In a nation that is increasingly turning its back on public housing, it could be again. No matter what city housing policy he chooses, the city will have to fund the maintenance of its public housing stock. It can do this in the lackadaisical manner of the past decade or it can make its public housing a model to be followed by building owners throughout the city.

There are two aspects to this challenge – the managerial and the technical. As an snow-storm-360x461organization, NYCHA been has allowed to drift into dysfunction. Repairs have not been made to apartments. Purchasing has been uncoordinated. Building modernization has not gone well.  The leadership has been more focused on financial deals than on running the operation. The residents are in near rebellion over their perception of being ignored.  The new commissioner, Shola Olatoye, will have her hands full. If, however, she is recognized as leading a major strategy for rebuilding affordable housing in New York, her hand to reorganize and reform NYCHA would be immeasurably strengthened. She will need serious mayoral backing to reshape the NYCHA bureaucracy into an operation capable getting its money’s worth from the funding that it has. If she succeeds, it will be a triumph in itself.

The technical challenges are of a different sort. Since 1935 when its first buildings came on line in Lower East Side, NYCHA has built simple, un-insulated masonry enclosed structures. In the last 19 years NYCHA has spent about $6 billion in refurbishing its 2,600 buildings and 178,800 apartments. That comes to about $1,800 per apartment per year.  Most of this work, not surprisingly, is consistent with the technology with which these buildings were originally built. Separate contracts are let to do specific tasks. Leaking brick walls get repointed. Aging elevators get modernized. A roofer comes in.

An alternative approach would be to take an entire building and renovate it for the twenty first century.  Temporarily housing the residents elsewhere, the building’s exterior walls would be insulated and it’s plumbing and heating system replaced. The elevator would be modernized and its electrical system upgraded to current codes. While the layout of rooms would be much the same, the finished building would be performing to the highest standards. Even only a few buildings are done a year, a rate well within its budget, such comprehensive rebuilding would demonstrate to its residents and the city at large NYCHA’s determination to confront affordability and sustainability.

As hundreds of buildings get this treatment over the years, the construction industry in the city will develop a skill sets to remake the non-publically owned housing stock. NYCHA could be the laboratory for sustainable energy retro-fits on a citywide scale. NYCHA will be spending money. Can it build for the future instead of merely trying to catch up with the backlog from the past?

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