Lessons for NYCHA: How London fixed its public housing By Jessica Katz
July 11, 2019

Several decades ago, London was in the midst of a crisis similar to the one the New York City Housing Authority faces today. Our counterpart across the pond made major changes that vastly improved its public housing. Incoming NYCHA Chairman Gregory Russ should draw from them to deliver the turnaround that New York’s public housing residents urgently need.

In the 1980s London’s public housing suffered from extensive capital needs, reduced federal subsidies, weak management processes and disenfranchised tenants who were denied a basic standard of living. Sound familiar?

The size of London’s public housing system—more than 770,000 apartments in 1980—made its emergency even more challenging. (New York City’s has 170,000.) Since then, there has been a remarkable transformation in the housing conditions of public housing residents in London. What lessons could we apply here?

First, bold leadership explicitly declared that the living conditions of public housing tenants were unacceptable and would not be allowed to continue. The vast majority of public housing would need to undergo considerable physical improvements, known as “regeneration.”

Second, a housing quality standard (the “Decent Homes Standard”) was created, and all public housing was required to meet it within 10 years.  Any proposed regeneration plans guaranteed existing public housing tenants that their homes would meet this standard. In New York, the basis for all public housing planning needs to be completely focused on the objective of improving living conditions for existing public housing tenants. We need this clarity in any negotiations with the federal government and in working with affordable housing partners on any NYCHA development projects.

Third, and perhaps most crucial, tenants were given a powerful seat at the table to decide what strategies would be employed at their developments. Tenants worked in partnership with housing authorities and the affordable housing industry to decide the best path for their homes to reach the new quality standard. They were given transparent information about the capital needs and operating budgets for their developments.

Tenants were even able to influence the selection of affordable housing partners. They were involved in the details of any renovation, master plans and ongoing management of their homes, and in some cases a majority vote of tenants was required before a regeneration plan could proceed.

Finally, the tenants and the Housing Authority had a menu of options to choose from when deciding the best way to improve housing conditions. Some developments chose to transfer to affordable housing ownership, demolish existing buildings, redevelop sites with affordable housing, and give existing residents the guarantee of a brand new home under the same rights as before. Other tenant groups decided that cross-subsidizing with market-rate housing would give them the best chance of preserving their public housing and creating an integrated community.

Many developments decided to go with public-private partnerships to conduct substantial renovations. Some developments kept housing authority management; some did not. Some decided extensive renovations were not necessary to reach the quality standard but established new property management organizations for their developments, with tenant representation on their boards.

Here in New York City, the resources and expertise of the affordable housing industry needs to be partnered with NYCHA residents to develop and implement plans. We need a toolbox of options to improve conditions. NYCHA needs new resources and new partners to improve the quality of life for public housing residents. Tenants need to be given more transparent information about their developments and a more tangible, active role in the decision-making process.

The good news for New York and Russ is that we have the key ingredients already. There is a broad consensus that our public housing conditions are intolerable. We have a robust affordable housing industry ready and able to help. Most importantly, we have an engaged and informed population of NYCHA residents who are eager to lend their expertise.

We need to pay attention to the important lessons from a sister city like London to generate a dynamic shift in the way we tackle our public housing crisis.