By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, December 16, 1986
There is no issue on which the Koch administration’s deficiencies have been more glaring than on housing. The situation has gone far beyond the status of a problem or even a crisis and now qualifies as a community alarm.
Yet for the nine years that the Koch administration has been running New York City, it has tried to pretend that the grievous shortage of basic shelter in this town was either a temporary things or could be solved by the public relations device of pointing the finger of responsibility elsewhere — at Washington, at Albany, at liberals, at critics.
The mayor scoffed at those who urged him to plan ahead, to develop long-term programs to produce housing for those who, by the hundreds and thousands, were losing theirs — the needy and working poor and low-income people of this city. He said he was a day-to-day manager. He shunned talking about the future (except about his plans to stay in office forever). He said that those who demanded long-range planning of him were soft-headed visionaries who had no notion of what it took to run the city.
Now we have the results. The Koch administration, dragging its heels every step of the way, has now been compelled to provide temporary, no-hope shelter in barracks and warehouses and welfare hotels to more than 26,000 people. Many thousands of others live on the sidewalks. Permanent housing is a thing of the mayor’s disdained future.
Another sign of the future came in a recent decision of a Housing Court judge. The judge, Lewis Friedman, ruled that conditions in two buildings in Upper Manhattan had deteriorated so far as to imperil the health and safety of the tenants.
The finding would have been quite ordinary in this city of dying buildings except for one things. The guilty party was not a private landlord who was abandoning his properties after milking them dry. The landlord was the Koch administration.
Responding to the tenants’ petition for relief, Judge Friedman removed the two buildings from city control and appointed an outside administrator to run them, saying that “it is hard to believe that an administrator can produce results as bad as the city’s ‘management’ in these two cases.”
This is the kind of unwished-for legal precedent that can only be handed down in never-never land — a land where upside down becomes the norm, where government becomes the object rather than the initiator of a lawsuit to replace a bad landlord with an administrator.
The government now owns 10,000 or more buildings, which it has taken over in foreclosure proceedings because their owners failed to pay the property taxes. Most of this happened in the Koch years. Over 5,600 of these buildings are vacant structures that contain over 55,000 apartments. But the rest, perhaps 4,500, are occupied — with 40,000 apartments and maybe 150,000 tenants, half of them on public assistance.
In the beginning, the idea behind taking over these virtually abandoned buildings was to make some modest repairs and get them in decent enough shape to put them back on the market and sell them to private owners. But this never happened for a variety of reasons, the key one being that no one saw them as viable investments.
Moreover, homelessness was growing rapidly, and these structures were at least a way for the city to contain the problem, if only pitiably. In naming an administrator for the two city buildings, Judge Friedman said that the tenants’ living conditions were little better than those of our sidewalk people. He wrote: “Many of the city’s ‘tenants’ are essentially homeless even though they have a roof and four walls.”
He talked of falling ceilings, rodents and roaches, broken doors and windows, major leaks from ruptured plumbing, lack of hot water and “a general condition of filth.” He said: “The city should be held to the same standards of conduct which…it seeks to impose on others owners. The city, if it allows a building to become or to remain as a slum, should be treated in the same manner it treats other slumlords.”
And more: “The conditions of the buildings qualify them as slums. The city has become the landlord of last resort for the homeless and others. These cases show that it has also become the slumlord of last resort.”
The officials in the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development who manage these buildings are not venal or lazy people. They are working and trying hard. But they suffer from absentee leadership at the top and, as a result, have had dumped on them a problem of such magnitude that their failures are guaranteed to be manifest.
To hold government responsible for every social ill and community problem would be simplistic and foolish. Government cannot fix everything.
But government can arouse public interest, create visible and vocal priorities, embarrass powerful private individuals and institutions into action.
Sadly, the Koch administration has too often abdicated its necessary role as generator of a crisis mentality about legitimate crises. It has acted only when others do the embarrassing.