Much of the U.S.s housing stock is quite old and aging fast: In New York, the median age of an owner-occupied home is 60 years. For public housing units, which are home to nearly a million people across the country, the problem is even more acute; more than half saw their last construction before 1975. As a result, many are in decrepit condition, and thousands of these apartments are removed from service every year because theyre not safe for occupants. Public housing complexes across the country are collectively staring down a more than $70 billion backlog in repairs, a staggering figure that jurisdictions simply dont have the funds to pay.
Symbolizing this failure, in many ways, is the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), which in recent years became the target of a federal probe over its failure to provide tenants with decent, safe, and sanitary housing. In 2019 a federal monitor was appointed to oversee reform of housing conditions issues like lead paint hazards, mold growth, pest infestations, and lack of heat during winters, which affected more than 80% of the citys public housing residents. At the Fulton and Elliott-Chelsea Houses in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, collectively home to 2,054 apartments, conditions were dire: the buildings need an estimated $366 million in repairs, and the citys only plan was to rehome residents before demolishing and rebuilding both complexes, which would have displaced tenants for an undetermined amount of time.
Tenants loudly protested the proposal for months, and ultimately, NYCHA backed down, and instead sent representativesalong with members of then-mayor Bill de Blasios office, community board members, and elected officialsto meet with tenants and discuss their vision for redevelopment. Known as the Chelsea Working Group, members met almost weekly for 18 months, starting in the fall of 2019, to hash out a plan that would best reflect the communitys needsthe only time in NYCHAs history that public housing residents were materially involved in construction plans for their homes. That culminated in a 108-page report published in February 2021 outlining the groups recommendations for fixing the apartments.
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