IN most of America, when the paint starts to chip or the sink starts to drip, the homeowner fixes it. In New York, a city of renters, he calls the landlord. Or, if he is one of the 400,000 people living in a building owned by the New York City Housing Authority, known as Nycha, he calls maintenance.
That worked pretty well until a few years ago, when cuts in federal subsidies pushed Nycha’s budget into a $77 million deficit. The list of needed repairs grew exponentially over the last decade. Now, according to recent reports, the city’s public housing needs $18 billion in repairs and upgrades.
This comes at the worst possible time, with unemployment among the city’s poor still unacceptably high and the number of households on the public-housing waiting list growing steadily.
Could one problem help solve another? Why couldn’t Nycha train tenants to do basic maintenance? Nycha’s professional staffs would still do the complicated work — roof repair, for example — but with some solid training, almost anyone can replaster a wall. At the same time, training for such work can be a first step toward a steady job.
Clearly, there are obstacles to such a plan. It is always hard to change ingrained customs, and Nycha and its tenants have a longstanding provider-client relationship. And of course this wouldn’t sit well with unions, which are understandably protective of their ranks and would bristle at the idea of training novices to do their work.
But the reality of the situation overwhelms such objections. Over the next four years Nycha is planning to make only $3.92 billion of the $18 billion in needed repairs and upgrades. Arguing over who will make nonexistent repairs is fruitless.
Moreover, should Mayor Bill de Blasio find the funding to build the 200,000 units of affordable housing he has proposed, more able workers will be needed, both while the new units are under construction and after they are occupied.