Lead Hides NYCHA’s Larger Scandal

By Eddie Borges

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. opened a meeting of a taskforce of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Poverty Reduction Initiative last year with instructions not to focus on the negative in the borough but to bring attention to recent improvements.

In a nutshell, this is the crisis facing NYCHA. None of our elected officials wants to tackle the challenges that have allowed the city’s housing projects to hurt so many people for so long. And at NYCHA, the low-hanging fruit is lead.

But even Columbia University professors Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, who literally wrote the book on problems associated with lead, would explain that it is simply one of the contributing factors to the crises at NYCHA, not the only problem. But no one is asking them to testify at hearings.

That’s because the underlying problem is childhood poverty.

In the United States, 22 percent of children live below the federal poverty line. In New York, 50 percent of Puerto Rican, Dominican and African American children live below the federal poverty line.

These children have low birth weights and health and developmental problems; experience hunger; have more accidents and higher mortality; and are also more likely to be obese.

Statistics also bear out that poor children are significantly more likely to be poor as adults.

But this crisis is not only hurting children living in NYCHA projects. It is hurting many of the communities surrounding NYCHA projects. And it is hurting the regional economy.

The U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) drops by an estimated 1.3 percent annually as a consequence of the fact that poor children grow up to be poor adults. That cost rises to 4 percent when the cost of increased crime and health services is included.

But those calculations are based on the children living below the federal poverty line nationwide.

In New York City, one third of the population is Puerto Rican, Dominican or Mexican. Half of this population is living at or below the federal poverty line.

Meanwhile, half the youth population in New York City are Hispanic, and half of them live at or below the federal poverty line.

That’s a whole lot of people who will not be contributing to the regional economy when they grow up.

This makes NYCHA the equivalent of a Puerto Rican pogrom.

This problem of childhood poverty is above and beyond the issue of devastating childhood trauma that most children living in NYCHA projects experience. Yet over the last couple of weeks, advocates for NYCHA residents have gone as far as calling the projects a safe haven for children — despite all the available data that show that NYCHA is the last place any child should ever be allowed near.

The next time white liberals call NYCHA a safe haven for children, maybe we should ask them if they would send their children to live in the projects for a week.

NYCHA residents’ concerns must be heard. They have been screwed over for 70 years. Even if lead paint is falling on their heads, vermin are crawling all over the kitchen and gangs are patrolling the halls, these are the only homes many of them have ever known.

But there is a solution.

Take a wrecking ball to the worst of the NYCHA projects across the city and replace them with mixed-income affordable housing built by developers who know what they are doing. This could be the equivalent of the Depression’s WPA program for the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

To support NYCHA residents concerned about their futures, this Robert Moses-like undertaking would train them and put them to work building and maintaining these new properties — and, ultimately, lift them and their families out of poverty.

And they should be trained at the better NYCHA projects that would remain standing, like the Pomonok Houses in Flushing and the Astoria Houses. Once these residents see that not all NYCHA housing is the same, they will be the first to demand the better type of housing NYCHA’s Queens residents enjoy, and which only a developer-led housing initiative could provide them.

This commentary appeared in the September 27, 2018 issue of the Queens Tribune.