Democracy Begins at Home: Public Housing Tenants Without a Voice

By Michelle Chen Jan 23, 2010

Walk through a typical New York City public housing complex, and you’re not likely to see many signs of civic life among drab high-rises and asphalt lots. But once upon a time, public housing was seen as a foundation for community-building, and residents were supposed to have a say in how their neighborhoods were run. Today, New York City’s Housing Authority (NYCHA) has all but buried its mandate to foster democratic participation in accordance with federal "964 regs," which are supposed to provide at least a nominal platform for raising tenant concerns. According to a report by the grassroots advocacy group Community Voices Heard, NYCHA residents have little meaningful input in housing policy, and the structures that enable dialogue between policymakers and residents are in disrepair. Presenting the report’s findings on Wednesday, CVH Policy and Research Coordinator Vincent Villano said, "the vast majority of residents are not participating in, nor getting critical information from an official resident participation system that, in the end, has no formal decision-making power." A survey of more than 1100 public housing residents revealed that fewer than one in five residents was active in their local resident association. Many lacked access to critical information about housing policies, such as funding decisions. Of those who knew their project had a resident association, only about 4 in 10 felt that the organization "represented their interests." And ultimately, it’s hard to make a case for resident participation when the Housing Authority has the last word, and routinely ignore the recommendations of resident representatives. An example: "NYCHA maintained a policy of charging residents for repairs despite feedback from 10,000 resident surveys and several RAB members that indicated the economic hardship caused by this policy." So much for democracy. The dysfunctional resident participation system has also become a financial drain. According to the report, internal disputes over funding led to the squandering of some $7.6 million originally budgeted for Tenant Participation Activities. What little participation does take place tends to be demographically skewed: "Youth, men, and Latinos in our survey were the least likely to participate in their resident associations. Older African-American women with long-term residency emerged as the main RA participants." Community Voices Heard calls on local officials as well as the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to enhance the role of resident organizations and tighten oversight.

Reforms to the current resident participation structure and alternatives to its current undemocratic processes can provide public housing residents with a direct way to preserve and protect public housing from disinvestment, deterioration, and demolition.

Disenfranchisement in the public housing system isn’t unique to New York, of course. After hurricane Katrina, New Orleans pushed through controversial plans to destroy public housing units over the fierce protests of residents, who were literally locked out of the decision-making process. This week, the Supreme Court crippled the democratic process by stripping away limits on corporate campaign cash. But outside of federal elections, some of the greatest potential for participatory democracy lies in the routine interactions between ordinary people and the institutions at the center of their lives. At a time when low-income Americans are increasingly alienated from the political system, and corporations are invading every level of government, something as simple as a tenant council can give folks a reason to get into politics at the ground floor, in their own neighborhoods. That is, if they could only unlock the civic structures designed to give them a voice. Image: Community Voices Heard