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Stories from the Line

Voices of the NYCHA Experience

Scaffolding at the Marble Hill Houses Scaffolding at the Marble Hill Houses went up in 2017, eliminating green space and creating dark corridors. Although repairs were never completed, the scaffolding was finally removed in August 2021. Photograph by Pamela Phillips.

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) is home to more than 500,000 individuals in 326 developments across the five boroughs of New York City, making it the largest public housing authority in North America. When NYCHA was created in 1934—with the mission to “provide decent, affordable housing for low- and moderate-income New Yorkers”—it was designed with amenities and community benefits, emblematic of the Modernist utopianism of the era. Yet as a part of the New Deal project, public housing was also created with built-in biases and discrimination that would surface years later as the community it serviced drastically changed due to white flight and suburbanization. While other affordable housing programs, such as rent control and Mitchell-Lama limited equity cooperatives emerged within the same era, residents benefiting from these programs were granted considerably more agency and autonomy without the stigmas faced by public housing residents.

Over the last several decades, the federal government has systematically starved public housing of funding for repairs. City and state legislators claim their hands are tied, and private capital is rushing in to fill the void. The urgent need for funding has led to controversial privatization programs such as RAD (Rental Assistance Demonstration) and the recent Blueprint for Change proposal. City and state leadership threaten to move forward with these conversion plans, despite tenants’ skepticism that private developers will honor their promises to overhaul buildings in need of repair. Since the program began in New York City in 2016, several RAD buildings have documented substandard cosmetic repairs, including unremediated lead paint, and toxic mold found behind newly installed drywall. Tenants who sign a new private lease give up significant legal protections, and are already facing higher eviction rates.

Despite being lauded by the City as a positive example of privatization, Ocean Bay Houses in the Rockaways has experienced twice as many evictions as other NYCHA properties, according to tenant organizer Stan Morse of the Justice For All Coalition. Such resident groups and advocates are demanding that public funds be used to maintain public housing as a service that stabilizes communities and benefits all of us.

Barnard Center for Research on Women staff member Pam Phillips’ ‘Changing the Narrative’ project is a powerful oral history and digital archive that compels us to reimagine public housing as more than the state of current day buildings, by listening to the lived experiences of residents themselves. These first-hand accounts counter prevailing negative narratives and highlight the importance of the place that many people call home.

“I have lived in public housing for the majority of my life and experienced first-hand how the negative images and perceptions of public housing communities and residents can invoke feelings of shame and embarrassment because of the way media influences public discourse. The communities are portrayed as breeding grounds for crime and drugs and the residents are often characterized as people who don’t work, are lazy and want to live off of the government. Much of what mainstream media writes about public housing often has a negative tinge; focusing primarily on the conditions of the buildings, mismanagement of the properties, government disinvestment, and the impact of concentrated poverty. Residents are sought for comment mainly to add authenticity to reported claims. Rarely are they asked to provide a counter-narrative or about anything other than the housing stock, as if there aren’t whole lives being discounted. It is a personal and professional goal to bring residents’ stories into the light, paint these developments with an air of community and hope and highlight public housing as a stabilizing force in urban communities.”

– Pamela Phillips, Senior Program Assistant at the Barnard Center for Research on Women