America’s Progressive Slumlord

New York City’s mayor presides over a public housing disaster.

By The Editorial Board

Affordable housing is a progressive mantra these days, and taxpayers are exhorted to put more money into public housing. But then we learn that America’s great progressive political hope, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, is essentially the nation’s pre-eminent slumlord.

That’s the sorry truth exposed this week in a scathing civil complaint and consent decree released by U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman over the New York City Housing Authority (Nycha). The complaint exposes how the authority neglected basic repairs and upkeep while taking active steps to deceive inspectors and cover up its ineptitude and wrongdoing.

This is no small agency. Nycha runs 176,066 public housing apartments in 2,462 buildings in 326 developments across the city. One of every 14 New Yorkers—400,000 people—calls Nycha home. Nycha is the largest public housing agency in America, larger than the next 11 agencies combined.

The federal complaint reads like something out of Upton Sinclair. On lead paint, for example, it finds that “since at least 2011, Nycha senior managers have known that Nycha was violating [federal Housing and Urban Development] lead paint requirements.” Nineteen children have been found to have lead poisoning, and in 2016 alone Nycha logged more than 38,000 complaints related to paint and plaster issues.

Every year, the complaint says, Nycha has falsely certified that it was complying with regulations designed to ensure “decent, safe and sanitary housing,” and it has “made these false certifications as part of its applications to obtain billions of dollars in funding from HUD.” Its practices include deceiving HUD inspectors “by disguising the true condition of its properties”—for example, turning off water to hide leaks or posting danger signs to keep inspectors away from troubled areas. Peeling lead paint, mold, non-functioning elevators, rats, vermin, broken heating, unfulfilled work orders, electricity outages—you name it, Nycha has failed to address it.

Rather than take responsibility, Mr. de Blasio has tried to shift the blame to the state and feds [Trump] and demand more money. But Mr. Berman says Nycha’s failures aren’t due to lack of federal funding “but because Nycha was a dysfunctional operation, and is fundamentally flawed and engaged in a culture of false statements and concealment.”

Alas, no reform is in sight. Under the consent decree, the city will pay $1 billion over the next four years and $200 million each year for the following six to help bring the housing up to regulatory standard. But Nycha’s own web page estimates its buildings need $17 billion for major repairs—money the city doesn’t have even with the billions it receives from the state and feds.

Mr. de Blasio made public housing a campaign theme when he first ran for mayor in 2013, so he can’t claim surprise. He even spent a night in public housing to show his supposed solidarity with residents.

But this is the classic story of modern liberal politics. Demand more money for more transfer payments while letting actual public assets like the subways and housing rot from perverse incentives and lack of attention. Then blame the rich and demand more money. The real problem is the false compassion of progressive government.

Mr. de Blasio can add housing to his problems with the deteriorating subway system and Department of Education.