Grist, September 29, 2021
American housing authorities may soon see an influx of federal funding. Paris offers lessons in how to spend it.
When U.S. Representative Jamaal Bowman visited his childhood home in Harlem’s East River Houses last winter, he was struck by a piece of graffiti at the entrance. The tag read, simply, “Help.”
For Bowman, it was a fitting testament to the state of New York City’s public housing, which aims to provide “safe, affordable housing” to low- and moderate-income New Yorkers. In recent years, however, the New York City Housing Authority, or NYCHA, has become a poster child of environmental injustice and government neglect. The agency faces a $40 billion backlog of lead paint, mold, heat and gas outages, and myriad other problems to fix. This has translated into a public health crisis for its half-million residents — more than the population of Atlanta, Georgia — which, like so many other symptoms of inequality, has only deepened during the COVID-19 pandemic.
NYCHA’s neglected infrastructure also takes a toll on the climate. A study by the agency last year found that its outdated heating systems waste two-thirds of their energy. Those systems are overwhelmingly powered by fuel oil and natural gas. As a result, NYCHA buildings alone produce a whopping 3 percent of New York City’s total carbon emissions.
But soon, NYCHA may have the funding to address its habitability issues and emissions problem hand in hand. Top Democrats in Washington, D.C., are promising $80 billion in funding for public housing as part of their $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package. NYCHA, as the largest and most distressed of the country’s housing authorities, could be eligible for up to half of the total funding.
NYCHA’s updated sustainability agenda, published last week, offers a glimpse of what the agency could do with that kind of funding. The program highlights goals like deep energy retrofits, solar roofs, and community gardens as part of what Steven Lovci, NYCHA’s executive vice president of capital projects, calls a “holistic approach” to restoring the promise of public housing.
So far, these goals remain largely aspirational. But such a transformation is well underway in other cities around the world — perhaps none more than Paris, which has been retrofitting thousands of public housing units per year for more than a decade. The city’s ambitious retrofit campaign may offer some insights into how American housing authorities like NYCHA could make essential repairs while also reducing building emissions, and respecting tenants’ rights during tricky renovations.