GOP Launches Stealth Attack on Public Housing

The housing bill passed by the House of Representatives last month contained a stealthy doomsday clause that gives New York officials the right to entirely dismantle the city’s public housing system. The provision, written into the housing bill by its author, Republican Rick Lazio of Long Island, specifically exempts the New York City Housing Authority from almost all federal public-housing regulations for at least three years. “That means the sky’s the limit in terms of tearing public housing apart,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the New York State Tenants and Neighbors Coalition.

“NYCHA could tear buildings down,” he added. “They could drive poor tenants out and replace them with middle-income people and never build any more low-income units. They could force poor people out and give them vouchers, even though there’s practically no affordable private housing in New York City.”

The Lazio bill, which represents the most significant overhaul of federal housing policy in six decades, puts $6.3 billion in federal housing subsidies in block grants to states. For the first time, it also allows public housing authorities to evict poor tenants simply because they could not afford to pay rent increases. It passed the House with broad bipartisan support by a 315-107 vote May 9.

But the clause singling out the city was carefully hidden in a section that allows 200 local housing authorities to opt into a public-housing deregulation plan. The bill specifically targeted municipalities with 100,000 or more public-housing units for mandatory deregulation. NYCHA, with 164,000 apartments, is the only housing authority large enough to fit that description.

There has been much speculation that NYCHA officials helped insert the provision, a contention denied by an authority spokesman. Still, a high-ranking agency official told City Limits that the Lazio bill isn’t exactly unwelcome. “It was dropped out of the blue on us,” the veteran administrator said. “But it’s not necessarily bad news. We look favorably on any federal legislation that leads to deregulation.”

The bill now goes to conference committee with the Senate, which passed its own housing bill in January. The Clinton administration has not said it will support the Lazio plan, but Democrats concede that a measure that gets tough on public-housing tenants will be hard to fight in a presidential election year.

“I don’t think the President is ready to go to the mat on low-income housing,” cautions one House staffer with close ties to the White House. “I think [HUD Secretary Henry] Cisneros already thinks Lazio’s version is fine the way it is. So there’s a chance this might become law.”


Reprinted with permission from City Limits Weekly.