The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A crumbling example of American socialism

Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) and reporters inspect peeling paint and mold in the bathroom of a NYCHA apartment in New York.
Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) and reporters inspect peeling paint and mold in the bathroom of a NYCHA apartment in New York. (Seth Wenig/AP)

America’s socialists are ready to take the Democratic Party by storm. And New York City is leading the way: Twenty-eight -year-old outer-borough Democratic Socialists of America member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is about to get elected to Congress on the Democratic ticket.

It makes sense, given the wealth and luxury on display in Manhattan’s tonier precincts, coupled with the pursuit of more on Wall Street. New York, New York, it’s a helluva town — and a 24/7 case study in capitalist excess.

Just one question: What do today’s socialists think of New York’s public housing system? Founded in the progressive heyday of the 1930s, it’s one of the largest government-run institutions in the city and home to 400,000 mostly low-income people — 1 out of every 14 New Yorkers. It is also in a state of dangerous collapse.

The system’s ills include rats, mold, broken water heaters, leaks, faulty elevators, cracked sidewalks — you name it.

The average age of the system’s buildings is over 60, yet deferred maintenance is so bad that, barring “dramatic change,” some 90 percent of the system’s units will be “no longer cost-effective to repair” by 2027, according to a statement from Carol Kellermann of the Citizens Budget Commission, a private watchdog group.

Some 820 children who live in New York’s public housing have tested positive for elevated lead levels, and city officials falsified lead-paint inspection reports — a scandal that deserves as much attention as the Flint water crisis but hasn’t gotten it.

Ultraprogressive Mayor Bill de Blasio, who came to office in 2014 pledging to govern on behalf of the city’s low-income residents, is ultimately accountable for the New York City Housing Authority.

The de Blasio administration does not dispute the decay, which indeed began before his tenure started. His administration last month settled a lawsuit by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, admitting that the Housing Authority not only failed to maintain buildings properly but also “covered up its actions, training its staff on how to mislead federal inspectors and presenting false reports to the government and to the public about its compliance with lead-paint regulations,” according to the New York Times.

De Blasio blames “disinvestment” in the city’s public housing by the federal government, which has cut support $2.7 billion since 2001. U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, however, says the problem isn’t money but a “dysfunctional operation” that is “engaged in a culture of false statements and concealment.”

They’re both right. Think your house is a money pit? Multiply that by more than 175,000 apartments in 2,413 buildings, and you have some idea of the federal “investment” it would have taken to keep up New York’s too-big-to-manage system. Even if Washington had increased spending by $2.7 billion over the past 18 years, New York would still be in a deep hole.

An internal Housing Authority study says the system needs $31.8 billion over the next five years, according to Politico. A rough estimate of when New York might be expected to come up with that kind of money would be “never.” Even the lawsuit settlement calls on the city to spend only $1.2 billion on repairs over the next five years.

If New York does come up with $31.8 billion, it should split the money into $79,500 checks and give one to each public-housing resident, then send them to find private apartments. Let developers tear down the existing buildings and put up something nicer.

It wouldn’t be fair to judge all progressive policies and socialist ideals by this one epic public-sector fail. It wouldn’t be totally unfair, either.

At a minimum, socialists might consider the lessons of repeated and usually unsuccessful attempts, in the United States and in other countries, to provide decent housing for large numbers of people on something other than private property.

The fundamental problem with public housing — unappreciated by those who considered it a cutting-edge concept in the 1930s — is not a lack of resources but a lack of incentives.

When everyone owns a building, no one owns it. It is in no one individual’s economic interest to keep the place safe, sanitary and attractive to preserve resale value as, say, a homeowner would — or a private landlord.

For the bureaucrats and politicians responsible for maintaining public housing, among their many other expensive responsibilities, deferred maintenance — “disinvestment” — seems like a rational coping mechanism. When the inevitable decay sets in, covering it up also seems like a rational coping mechanism. And yet everyone involved started out with the best of intentions.

If you doubt this dynamic applies to other contexts, take a ride on Washington’s formerly glittering, now decrepit, Metrorail system or on New York’s troubled subway, for that matter. The evidence of American capitalism’s shortcomings is all around us; the same goes for American socialism.

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