The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Residents in decaying public housing see futures on the line as Democrats trim spending bill

Douglas Covington poses for a photo in his apartment in the Seth Low Houses in Brooklyn. His bathroom and kitchen have had water damage, and the elevators in the building often don't work. His apartment is on the third floor, and he is reliant on a cane or walker and cannot use the stairs. (Biz Herman for The Washington Post)

BROWNSVILLE, N.Y. — Douglas Covington has had a gaping hole in the ceiling above his toilet for most of the past four years, with the temporary patches from New York City public housing’s repairmen typically only lasting a few months before it reemerges.

“It’s a lot of tension on me. When you go in the bathroom, if it’s not dripping you have to say, ‘Let me hurry up before it starts raining on me,’ " said Covington, 57, a former musician and flight attendant who relies on a walker after a series of heart attacks and strokes. Covington pointed to the black umbrella he has occasionally had to use to take to the bathroom. “Our housing has so many problems that have developed over years that they have started to layer upon each other.”

Covington’s circumstances show what’s on the line as top Democrats seek to pare down a massive social spending bill to win the votes of centrists in their party who say they are concerned about runaway spending. President Biden has promised vast new benefits for the young and the old, but lesser-known aspects of the plan would deliver billions of dollars to fill gaps in the current safety net.

Biden’s proposed $40 billion to repair public housing — long maligned as a symbol of government mismanagement — may be vulnerable to downsizing in negotiations, according to a half-dozen aides familiar with ongoing negotiations, speaking on the condition of anonymity to reflect private deliberations. Democratic lawmakers have this week begun to acknowledge that Biden’s broader $300 billion housing plan, which was first rejected by Republicans in bipartisan infrastructure negotiations, could shrink to as little as $100 billion in the final version of the legislation.

The New York City Housing Authority said in a statement that the poor living conditions were reflective of the desperate need for federal funds to upgrade the nation’s decaying public housing stock.

“The poor conditions you see at NYCHA, and many housing authorities across the country, are the direct result of four decades of starving public housing of crucial capital funding; this is precisely what disinvestment looks like,” said Barbara​ Brancaccio, a NYCHA spokeswoman, declining to comment on specific residents.

The contentious process of downsizing the bill pits not just Democrats’ policy goals against each other, but threatens to disappoint key constituencies.

On Zoom calls over the past several weeks, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) have told advocates that they are fighting to ensure public housing funds stay in the final legislation.

Sitting in east Brooklyn’s Seth Low Apartments after one such call on a recent Monday, resident Reginald Bowman, 68, said he’s heard similar promises from Democratic lawmakers before. Bowman emphasized that two parts of the country with the highest numbers of public housing residents — the Bronx and Brooklyn — are two of the most heavily Democratic in the country. But federal funding for New York City’s public housing fell by 18 percent from 2001 to 2017, creating the current enormous $40 billion backlog of repairs and maintenance.

“They said they’re going to support us, which is what they always say — ‘Blah, blah blah,' ” said Bowman, after a tour of the project’s broken elevators, crumbling siding, and heaps of trash in the front yard. “We’ve been responsible for electing everyone in Washington — from [Rep. Jamaal] Bowman to Schumer and everyone else. But it looks like they’re going to leave poor people out again.”

Federal funding for public housing fell out of favor in recent decades as lawmakers preferred subsidizing private housing. But Biden’s bill would represent a reversal in that approach — with disproportionate impacts on minority communities.

Almost half of the United States’ 2 million public housing residents are Black, and almost two-thirds are either Black or Latino, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank.

"This bill is the first time we’ve seen a pendulum swing back toward much more direct federal involvement in housing,” said Joshua McCabe, a historian of U.S. welfare policy at Endicott College. “Democrats have for the last several decades focused on having money follow people, so this is a big shift back to the supply side — giving federal money to repair existing housing that’s crumbled over the years.”

In New York, a report by the Department of Health in 2018 found roughly 47 percent of units had “insect infestations” primarily caused by cockroaches, while more than 30 percent had units with visible mold growth. Another 20 percent reported leaking roofs or leaking water pipes. As many as 200,000 public housing units have come offline since the 1990s.

Paul Williams, a housing expert at the Jain Family Institute, a left-leaning think tank, said federal funding for public housing capital projects collapsed by roughly 62 percent from 1998 to 2020.

Experts say the eviction tradition in Richmond and other Southern cities dates back generations, and has affected black communities the most. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

Some experts argue that the move away from public housing was for good reason. Public housing, they say, should be abandoned in favor of models that do not force the poor to live together in close quarters in developments that in turn provoke public animosity. Public housing agencies including New York City’s have come under fire for a series of controversies, including a bribery scandal over its contractors process and a coverup of lead-water-test results.

“The housing projects of the ’50s and ’60s were disastrous and concentrated poverty,” said Sam Hammond, a policy expert at the Niskanen Center, a center-right think tank. “Biden is doubling down on a model we moved away from for good reason.”

Other housing policy experts say that public housing conditions deteriorated because of the massive declines in public investment.

"We let conservative movements starve our public housing of funding, so of course they have fallen into disrepair,” said Williams, the housing expert at the Jain Family Institute. “The question now is if we’ll succumb to the failures of the past, or overcome them?”

But even within the Democratic camp, lawmakers are vying for the inclusion of competing priorities tailored for different demographics. Liberal lawmakers who represent urban America say the priorities must be public housing, rental aid for the poor, and eradicating homelessness. But lawmakers from more suburban and rural areas have demanded tax credits for first-time middle class home buyers. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) has said he will vote against a bill that fails to provide assistance to first-time home buyers.

“What I’m hearing is there is discussion about whether or not the support for housing is going to poor people or whether it’s going to middle class people,” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who led the design of the housing provisions in the package from her position as chair of the House Financial Services Committee.

Waters’s legislation includes roughly $90 billion in housing vouchers for poorer Americans, as well as $80 billion for the public housing maintenance backlog. Waters said that Biden indicated to her in two conversations that “he was supportive of housing." But, she added, “I don’t know what that means."

“I could understand members from suburban districts feel uncomfortable with it — public housing has a very bad rap, which is somewhat warranted,” said Dean Baker, a liberal economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “It is going to be a real explosive issue, so I could understand a lot of members and senators not wanting to be associated with that. I’m not defending that, but I certainly understand that political reality.”

Part of the challenge for the city housing agency is that it is often only to offer patchwork repairs to address the symptoms of the apartments’ disrepair, rather than undergo the gutting and renovation work crucial to resolving the underlying problem. The danger of failure is magnified by other economic head winds that exacerbate the national housing crisis.

Shortages in construction workers and higher costs have increased housing costs nationwide. In New York City, the lack of federal funding for public housing has collided with other trends — including a wave of retirements and supply chain disruptions — that have made it even more difficult to clear the massive backlog of repairs for poorer tenants.

At the Ravenswood public housing development in Astoria, Queens, for instance, maintenance staff have struggled to get stove parts, refrigerators, plaster equipment and bulbs. Six of the 20-person staff retired since the outset of the pandemic. Whereas before the pandemic the complex’s janitorial staff was each responsible for maintaining three buildings, due to retirements and layoffs they’re now each responsible for six. Residents in particular complain of rupturing pipes that lead to damaged kitchens and living rooms.

“These are old pipes so they are beginning to break, like our bones,” said Carol Wilkins, president of the Ravenswood tenants association. “I’m hoping and praying we get the money here to get these pipes fixed and changed before everything else breaks. It’s just time."

Pamela Wheeler, 72, a resident of the Queensbridge North Apartment projects, struggles to spray the roaches that scatter across her kitchen wall, ceiling and cabinets. Wheeler has struggled to find Raid cans recently, and other residents complain that the cost of cleaning supplies has skyrocketed.

“This is the worst it’s ever been,” said Wheeler, a former school aide.