The Criminal System Behind the Nightmare of NYCHA Housing

and What Is Possible in a New Socialist Society

| Revolution Newspaper |


Picture this scene: Families shiver all winter in apartments where 80 percent of tenants lost their heat. Huge swaths of asthma-triggering mold suffocate nearly every floor, roaches infest the walls, and rats create mazes of burrows. Broken elevators trap elderly and disabled residents in their apartments, forcing some to sleep in lobbies. In more than half the buildings, chips of lead paint badly harm the physical and mental development of children. A social worker finds her client hallucinating because 90 percent of the walls and ceiling in her apartment are covered in one to two inches of black mold.1

Surely this must be a vision of hell. And it is—a hell in New York City, for the roughly half a million people in public housing, or NYCHA (New York City Housing Authority).

It’s not that the tenants said nothing. It’s not that nobody, including the big “reform” mayor Bill de Blasio, knew. Oh, they knew. Between 2013 and 2016, NYCHA got 260,000 work orders for roaches, 90,000 for mice, and 36,000 for rats.

And they didn’t just ignore it—they covered it up and went so far as to instruct the project workers on how to cover it up. In fact, the NYCHA website provided “Quick Fix Tips,” on how to hide violations. When inspectors came, NYCHA workers shut off the water to hide chronic leaks. They built false plywood walls to hide dilapidated rooms. NYCHA falsely certified that lead paint inspections had been conducted in 55,000 potentially tainted apartments—literally sentencing children in those 55,000 apartments to intellectual disability!

This is criminal—far more criminal than what 90 percent of the people now in prison were found guilty of. In a just world those responsible—both de Blasio and the federal government under both Democrats and Republicans, now trying to shift sole blame to de Blasio—would be held accountable. But the crime goes deeper than that. The crime is a crime of this system.

Destruction of Public Housing

In the 1950s and ’60s, prison-like high-rise public housing went up in cities like Chicago, Baltimore, and New York City. This was a conscious effort by the U.S. government to effectively segregate hundreds of thousands of poor Black people in these projects and neighborhoods. (See sidebar on “Public Housing and Segregation.”) But in the late ’70s and ’80s, government policy began to shift in the wake of urban Black rebellions of the late 1960s. A major government study of the “causes of the riots” saw a need to “break up concentrations of poverty,” and a change from “traditional publicly built slum based high rise projects to smaller units on scattered sites.”2

This gave way to government efforts to get rid of much of public housing—in 1998, 100,000 apartments were razed under the Federal Hope VI Program. In some cities, like Chicago, high-rises were left to rot and fall apart and then demolished. In New York, the high-rises were not destroyed, but left to deteriorate to the point where apartments are uninhabitable and inhumane. Meanwhile, NYCHA has seen $2.7 billion cut since 2001. And now Trump is calling for the deepest cuts to HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development) in almost 40 years. Some say this would be the most radical attack on federal housing aid since public housing began in 1937, and would lead to the eviction of millions of low-income families.

Trump Regime and NYCHA

With Trump, who made his early millions by using federal money to build white-only housing complexes and whose entire political life has featured the most open and venomous racism imaginable as a cornerstone, this is all getting much worse.

The head of HUD, Ben Carson, who once asserted that poverty is largely “a state of mind,” said, “I have a strong desire to get rid of programs that create dependency in able-bodied people.” He wants to raise rent for public housing from 30 to 35 percent of people’s income and require people work at least 15 hours at a minimum wage job. This would affect more than 4.5 million families. Carson says this will “incentivize people” and give them “a way out of poverty.” In other words, the Trump regime is saying to poor people, “Fuck you, you’re just lazy and we’re not going to help you anymore.”

All this provides context for the federal government’s 80-page civil complaint against NYCHA, issued on June 11—the results of a federal investigation that began in 2015, under Obama and continued under Trump. Three Trump officials, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, EPA head Scott Pruitt (who has since been forced out of his position), and Ben Carson at HUD were directly involved in the complaint and settlement.

The complaint accuses NYCHA of carrying out systematic misconduct, indifference, and outright lies to cover up the criminal treatment of tenants. New York City isn’t contesting these allegations, making a deal rather than face trial. It signed a consent decree—admitting to the accusations, submitting to federal oversight, and agreeing to spend an additional $1 billion on NYCHA over the next four years.

This might seem puzzling. For decades now, the government has worked to get rid of public housing. So why is the fascist Trump/Pence regime scolding NYCHA for not maintaining its buildings? A few things to consider:

Democratic presidents, including Clinton and Obama, have presided over much of this criminal handling of public housing, and this is yet another way for Trump to attack the Democrats and what he calls “the swamp.” Holding local governments responsible for repairs is also a way to make a big cut in the federal budget—NYCHA says it needs $31.8 billion to fix decaying buildings. And the consent decree is at least in part a way to do damage control—to make it appear the feds are concerned and doing something about this problem and to channel people’s outrage into hope for small reforms.

In recent years, after nationwide protests against police murder and brutality, a number of local police departments were put under federal consent decrees. Reports detailed brutal, murderous, and unconstitutional behavior by cops and then addressed this with totally ineffective crap, like “better training” and body cameras. But this didn’t do anything to stop pigs, including those under consent decrees, from continuing to murder people. Trump’s attorney general Jeff Sessions has criticized these decrees as bad for the morale of police. Now this same shit is being implemented for the NYCHA criminals.

It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

New York City may repair some apartments. But the fact remains that this system of U.S. capitalism/imperialism is incapable of providing decent housing for poor people because this isn’t profitable. As Raymond Lotta wrote about the crisis of decent and affordable housing in U.S. cities:

This could be easily solved. The materials and resources exist; countless numbers of socially committed architects and urban planners want to contribute their know-how to a better world; there is a vast reservoir of basic people in the oppressed communities who are locked out of jobs or whose skills are not utilized, and millions of young people burn with a desire to change the world. But under this system, people and resources are not brought together and people are not mobilized to solve the housing crisis—because profit rules and housing is an object of investment and global speculation... while 6,300 people are evicted from rental households every day in the U.S. This is absurd, this is cruel, this is totally unnecessary.

Bob Avakian has stressed the significance of Marx’s comment that “Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.” This means that under capitalism, the right of people to have decent housing does not and cannot rise above the “right” of the capitalist system to make profits and accumulate capital.

But IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY! The Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America, authored by Bob Avakian, is a concrete and visionary blueprint for a radically new society that would be built after the revolutionary overthrow of this system. It says:

The most basic right of the proletariat, together with the broad masses of people, in the New Socialist Republic in North America is to be enabled to have the fundamentally decisive role in determining the direction of society, and to join in struggle with others throughout the world, in order to finally abolish relations of exploitation and oppression; and to bring into being, and increasingly play the determining role in regard to, government which will be an instrument toward those ends. (p. 63)

Under socialism, the rights of the people would be commensurate with a whole different economic and political system that is NOT based on profit. Humanity could free itself of exploitation and suffering, including homelessness and horrendous housing conditions created by capitalism.

The Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America outlines how it will actually be possible to build a new liberating society, including on the question of housing:

In light of the egregious crimes, oppression and injustice perpetrated by the former ruling class and government of the United States of America against various minority nationalities, to give expression to the voluntary union and growing unity of the various peoples within the New Socialist Republic in North America, and to give the most powerful effect to the principles and objectives set forth in this Constitution, discrimination against minority nationalities, in every sphere of society, including segregation in housing, education and other areas, shall be outlawed and prohibited, and concrete measures and steps shall be adopted and carried out, by the government at the central and other levels, to overcome the effects of discrimination and segregation, and the whole legacy of oppression, to which these peoples have been subjected. (p. 51)

While instituting the socialist principle of payment for work, the socialist state strives, step-by-step, to reduce wage and salary differences. It leads struggle against backward values of competitive gain and self-enrichment and promotes the outlook of “serving the people” and advancing the revolution. It expands the sphere of distribution of goods and services, like housing and health care, according to social need and through more collective means (in workplaces, neighborhoods, etc.). (p. 86)

The state in the New Socialist Republic in North America and the planned economy under its direction take special measures for “raising the bottom up.” This principle serves the crucial task of overcoming historic inequalities affecting the formerly oppressed nationalities, and other profound disparities in society. The whole of society will be mobilized to overcome these inequalities. Priorities in distribution of needed social goods and services (like health and housing) will be guided by this principle. The socialist economy also gives priority to overcoming gaps between the more developed regions and areas and the less developed. (p. 83)

With a fundamentally different economic structure, a different culture, a different political structure, the people will most of all, have the right to revolutionize society as part of emancipating humanity worldwide. To bring about this new society, we need a real revolution to overthrow the capitalist system and here too there are concrete answers for how this could happen. Check out HOW WE CAN WIN—How We Can Really Make Revolution.

1. U.S Department of Justice press release, June 11, 2018 and New York Daily News, July 5, 2018  [back]

2. The Kerner Commission Report, 1968.  [back]


Public Housing and Segregation

Public housing in the U.S. was first built in the mid-1930s during the Great Depression, as part of the concessions made by the New Deal to stave off rebellion. With World War 2, workers were needed by factories to pump out goods for the war, so public housing was expanded.

Even then, this housing was segregated, with Black people intentionally herded into the worst of the housing with few facilities of any kind. Then, in the decades after the war, the federal government made loans for housing available to white American workers and middle-class people, who moved out of the public housing and in many cases out of the cities altogether. This same federal government—under the Democrats, mind you—refused to guarantee any loans in neighborhoods with any concentration of Black people or sometimes any Black people at all. (See Color of Law by Richard Rothstein.)

Public housing—first a concession, then a stopgap for factory workers—changed again. Beginning in the 1950s, public housing became a way to contain poor Black people. During the Great Migration (1916-1970), six million African Americans came to the cities in the North. Searching for a better life and a way to escape KKK terror, they were pulled to cities like Chicago and New York by the demands of growing capitalist industry—which offered Black people the hardest and lowest paying factory jobs. But beginning with automation in the 1950s and ’60s, the government consciously reinforced segregation by building prison-like high-rise projects and effectively segregating Black people in those projects and in those neighborhoods.

In this way, public housing was a way to maintain segregation and reinforce the ideological glue of white supremacy among whites, including (or especially) poorer and working class whites, and to increase the isolation and pariah status of Black people. As author Richard Rothstein wrote, “The purposeful use of public housing by federal and local governments to herd African Americans into urban ghettos had as big an influence as any in the creation of our de jure system of segregation.”

Let’s talk about work and housing together. Look at all these neighborhoods which under the rule of the capitalist system have been allowed and even encouraged to rot. Look at the youth and others just hanging out on the street corner with nothing to do or no way to do anything that doesn’t get them into one kind of trouble or another. Imagine changing all that because now we have the power over society—we go to these youth and we say, “Here, we’re going to give you training. We’re going to give you education. We’re going to bring you materials. We’re going to enable you to go to work to build some beautiful housing and playgrounds and neighborhoods here for yourself and those who live here.” Imagine if we said to them, you can not just work, you can be part of planning all this, you can be part of figuring out what should be done for the benefit of the people to make this society better and to contribute to making a whole different and radically better world. Imagine if for these youth, they could have a way, not just to make a living, building housing, hospitals, community centers and parks and other things people need, but at the same time, they could have the opportunity and the dignity of working together with people throughout society to build a whole better world. There’s absolutely no reason why these things aren’t possible except that we live under this system which makes them impossible.

Bob Avakian, BAsics 2:6

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