Public Housing Participation in Superstorm Sandy Recovery

By Leigh Graham (City University of New York)

In February in New York City, the Citywide Council of Presidents, an elected body representing over 400,000 tenants of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), took the unprecedented step of suing the agency. Resident leaders sought an independent monitor for the Authority, pointing to high-profile health and safety failures including a lapse in lead paint inspections with fraudulent reports to the contrary from the Chairwoman, Shola Olatoye, and sporadic heat and hot water during a frigid winter.  The plaintiffs also allege that NYCHA has failed to include residents in policymaking, as U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) guidelines mandate.  NYCHA has suffered devastating budget cuts that began in the late 1990s, and today faces a $17B shortfall, undermining maintenance of and improvements to the aging developments.  Tenants using the court system to claim their right to safe and adequate shelter in public housing believed they had no other recourse after years of being politically “shut down” by NYCHA. The Chairwoman, among other agency leaders, has since resigned.

This last-straw lawsuit embodies a sense of collective inefficacy that I witnessed during two years of research after Superstorm Sandy on the Rockaway peninsula in Queens, where almost 10,000 public housing residents live.  Drawing on empirical evidence from Rockaway, where NYCHA tenants constitute about eight percent of the population, I show that their disaster recovery experiences have been materially different than their neighbors who own homes and rent in the private housing market. I offer a novel argument in Urban Affairs Review that public housing tenants in NYC live under a “differentiated state” compared to their neighbors.  That is, they live under an objectively different governing arrangement than other New Yorkers, in which their political efficacy to advocate for themselves is seriously constrained by four interlocking psychological, institutional, and spatial boundaries:


  • Their stigmatized identities as low-income people of color, which confers inferior status on them that rationalizes their unequal treatment in recovery politics;
  • HUD regulations that stipulate their political power and channel it narrowly towards working with local public housing authorities;
  • NYCHA’s “para-governmental” status, which allows it to operate with very little managerial and budgetary oversight at the state and local level;
  • The spatial footprint of the developments: Modernist, high-rise super blocks cut them off from their neighbors and create qualitatively different environmental impacts from Superstorm Sandy.


Taken together, these socio-spatial boundaries have isolated public housing residents from the political activism of their neighbors and limited their political efficacy at the local, state and federal level. After Sandy, Rockaway public housing tenants lost easy access to polling places, suffered closure of community spaces and resident council offices, and felt NYCHA’s workforce development was insufficient to connect residents to post-Sandy reconstruction. They felt unwelcome at local community meetings, and recovery policy priorities – Build it Back, the reconstruction of the Rockaway Boardwalk – were mostly irrelevant to them. Residents thus experienced reduced capacity to vote; to gather and share information with one another; to pursue meaningful, accessible work; and internalized stigma from their political and spatial isolation.

The affordable housing policy landscape of NYC is distinctive, with the City demonstrating expansive and long-standing commitments to housing the poor through rental protections and a robust community development sector.  NYC is home to the largest public housing authority in the U.S., constituting 16% of the nation’s public housing; NYCHA is often referred to as a “city within a city.”  Tenants’ lawsuit followed several years of promising operations reforms under the formerly well-regarded Chairwoman, a community development expert, and sizable financial investments in NYCHA, including $3B from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for Sandy repairs and $3.7B in city funding under progressive Mayor Bill de Blasio, first elected in 2013.  The lawsuit also comes as the City and State of New York publicly jockey over heroic interventions into the troubled authority, with Governor Cuomo recently declaring a State of Emergency and appointing a monitor to oversee repairs.  Governor Cuomo, running for re-election and being pushed to the left by primary challenger Cynthia Nixon, joins a group of elected officials who have made hay of NYCHA’s woes in recent years, including the Mayor, City Council members, the NYC Comptroller, and the Public Advocate.

Yet, for many tenants, all this elite attention has failed to actually improve their lives.  I offer a new framework for understanding the limits of political power for public housing tenants, even in periods of relative progress as under the De Blasio Administration.  This framework is a testable proposition in other U.S. cities with significant public housing portfolios, as well as for researchers and advocates in immigration, evictions, the carceral state, or any urban policy domain where psychological, institutional and spatial factors coalesce to create a materially separate “state” under which vulnerable populations live. Comparative research might support strategies to reduce racial and class stigma, incorporate tenant voices into political channels, make design improvements – without displacement – to reconnect developments to surrounding communities, and propose policies to increase local oversight of public housing authorities.  Taken together, this praxis could contribute to greater incorporation of marginalized populations into urban politics, perhaps by highlighting best practices for integrating feedback from parallel engagement channels that acknowledge difference and address uneven political power within cities. As the NYCHA tenants’ lawsuit shows, even in moments of political incorporation, the voices of marginalized people of color are still too easily crowded out.

Read the article here.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Leigh Graham is assistant professor of urban policy and planning at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and The Graduate Center, The City University of New York. Her research focuses on cultural and strategic conflicts between communities and the state in governing resilient cities, particularly after disasters and with attention to public housing. Recent work on recovery politics in New York and New Orleans is inGlobal Environmental ChangeJournal of the American Planning Association, and Housing Policy Debate.

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  1. Civil Society Workshop on October 11 with Leigh Graham – Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society

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