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Wall Street Journal Highlights a Problem, but Poses the Wrong Solution

David Weber, Policy Analyst

In a July 30 editorial, the Wall Street Journal highlights federal monitor Bart Schwartz’s report citing instances of waste and inefficiency at the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). They then call out Democratic candidates’ proposals to spend more on housing programs, concluding that “voters should demand that politicians clean up nightmares like NYCHA before spending another dime.”

Voters should demand and expect better performance from our public agencies, staff, labor unions, and politicians. However, the WSJ prescription exemplifies just what is wrong with our federal public housing and housing assistance programs – proposing a one size fits all solution (in this case, no funding) to address problems that do not exist in most places. Furthermore, withholding funding will exacerbate existing problems and make it impossible to fix.

First, the vast majority of Public Housing Agencies, that administer both the Public Housing Program and the vast majority of Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers, do a great job with limited resources. They should not all be penalized by withholding federal appropriations because of the failures of a few high-profile agencies.

Second, the types of problems seen at NYCHA and other agencies are the result, primarily, of inadequate funding for capital needs. Waste and inefficiency should be eliminated, but it is hard to be efficient when trying to maintain systems that should have been replaced. Withholding funding because of problems that result primarily from inadequate funding is a self-defeating and illogical approach.

Third, some of the problems cited are the result of misguided policy or unintended consequences of the requirements related to that very funding. For example, HUD monitors, requires reports on, and scores agencies based on work orders created and completed, work order ‘backlogs,’ and average work order completion times. This creates a focus on the work order status, rather than the condition of the property. Workers, managers, and executives are then distracted from the core work of making repairs. Instead, they must focus on the HUD required work to collect and report on HUD-identified data rather than on metrics that reflect the effectiveness of the operation and conditions of housing units.

NYCHA and its labor unions should not be let off the hook – changes to operations, management of modernization projects, contract oversight, and union agreements are needed. Any efforts at reform, however, are doomed without adequate funding to address the capital needs. Withholding funding will only make matters worse for residents, will further undermine and threaten the future of these crucial affordable housing resources, and will cripple any attempts to bring greater efficiency and effectiveness to agencies like NYCHA. Most importantly, the thousands of local public housing authorities nationwide should not be punished and held hostage by Congressional funding decisions because of the situation at one single housing authority, even if it is the biggest such authority in the nation. Reform AND funding is the right answer. Nothing else, not even conversion to the Section 8 platform via the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), will do.