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10 Surprising Facts About NYCHA, New York's 'Shadow City'

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In this week's New York magazine, Mark Jacobson takes on a doozy of a task: examining the city's public housing projects and why they are what they are today, "a shadow city within the city." NYCHA, or Nychaland to Jacobson, is the last system of giant housing projects in the country. Once touted as modern housing that would build communities, New York's projects are aging, crumbling piles of bricks "sinking into the loam like a Mayan ruin" that nobody seems to know how to save?many of which sit on prime real estate or in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. Here now, we have the article's ten most interesting and surprising facts and stories:

1) NYCHA is huge. There are 334 developments holding 178,895 apartments in 2,602 buildings situated on an area three times the size of Central Park. Officials site the population at 400,000, but because there are so many people living "off-lease," actual population is around 600,000. An additional 160,000 families are on the waiting list. If Nychaland were its own city, it would be the 21st most populous city in the nation, bigger than Boston and Seattle.

2) NYCHA chairman John Rhea doesn't think it's that bad. "NYCHA is supposed to be this great problem. But if your rich uncle left you NYCHA in his will, that would be the luckiest day of your life. NYCHA, with its vast holdings, is a tremendous asset for the City of New York."

3) NYCHA has money issues. Rhea told City Council earlier this year that NYCHA is out of money and costs millions each day. The cost needed to repair the buildings clocks in at $6 billion, but would likely balloon to $14 billion in four years. Because of money issues, there are 300,000 unmet repair requests, and yet, the Daily News recently reported that NYCHA is sitting on nearly a billion dollars. No one will say why this money is not being spent.

4) Howard Husock, vice-president of policy research at the Manhattan Institute, has a plan for the future of NYCHA, but it involves buying the residents out, so it probably won't ever work. Husock says projects are a "frozen zone" that impedes development and turnover of properties because residents stay for a very long time and the low rents (25 to 30 percent of one's income) will never pay for the building. He suggests reducing the housing stock to 60 percent, limiting leases to five years, and selling off the attractively located (Chelsea, LIC waterfront, etc.) properties.

5) Rhea is trying to save NYCHA with a public-private funding scheme with Citigroup: "In exchange for fifteen years' worth of guaranteed federal low-income-housing tax credits, the bank helped secure $230 million for 21 troubled developments that were built but no longer funded by the city and/or the state. The arrangement triggered NYCHA's eligibility for the onetime infusion of $75 million of federal stimulus funds."

6) NYCHA won't pay for video cameras, but they'll get really mad if you install some yourself. The chair of one of the most powerful tenant associations hired an independent video surveillance company to install cameras and wifi in the Mott Haven houses in the Bronx. Residents can see the feed on their smartphones and computers. NYCHA flipped out, but the chair showed Bloomberg the system at a NYCHA party, and he said "Wow, that's terrific. All the developments should have that."

6) The Queensbridge projects, on 50 waterfront acres in Long Island City, could fetch upwards of $300 million if sold in today's market.

7) Both cops and residents are scared to go inside the projects. Since Mayor Giuliani combined the NYCHA police with the NYPD, many contend that crime has risen. "It's just fucking dangerous," said one cop. "There's a million ­places to hide. Shit comes at you all angles. Once these guys were on a call at the Polo Grounds Towers. They're there like five minutes and someone screams, 'Incoming.' This massive, Costco-size jar of mayonnaise comes flying out of the 27th-story window and goes through the windshield of a cruiser. [...] Sometimes you have to ask yourself, What's the point?" At a recent tenant meeting, one resident said, "If the cops are afraid to go in there with guns, how am I supposed to feel?"

8) People live in NYCHA for a long time. Why? Because it's cheap. Rent averages $434 a month. In a Harlem project, a woman rents a 3-bedroom with river views for just over $500 a month. She shared this story: "The other day at the bodega I ran into these four white girls. I started talking to them. They said they were living right across the street in this dumpy building paying $800. I thought, Well, that's all right. Then they say they're paying $800 apiece! One of them is sleeping on the couch. Sleeping on the couch in their own house! I went back to my apartment, looked at my view, and thought, Maybe my elevator is pissy, but if that's gentrification, who's the joke on now?"

9) NYCHA holds an annual gardening contest. 62-year-old Caroline Thunder, a 40-year resident of the Louis H. Pink Houses, won first place. "It didn't matter that Louis H. Pink was built on a dump; the soil still worked."

10) Old ladies hold the power in the projects. In Far Rockaway, 91-year-old Connie Taylor simply drives her motored wheelchair in front of troublemakers, like the drug dealers she says gather at the bodega, and stares at them. They quickly disperse. "They can't face me," she says. "I shame them."
· The Land That Time and Money Forgot [NYM]
· NYCHA Board Sitting on Nearly $1B in Fed Cash [NYDN]
· NYCHA coverage [Curbed]
Lead image by l_c_m_tt via Curbed Flickr pool