Originally published on Teen Vogue January 23rd, 2017.
When I was in the fifth grade, my mother, infant brother, and I settled in the Colonial Houses Projects in Harlem (now named the Ralph Rangel Houses).
The first year was rough. After a year-and-a-half of transition — two weeks in a homeless shelter in the South Bronx, followed by a few months in a temporary living motel and a transitional housing facility — we had returned to Harlem with not much more than the clothes on our backs. I slept on an air mattress next to my infant brother for six weeks until we could scrounge enough money for a bed on layaway. The elevators and staircases consistently smelled like urine. The facilities were poorly maintained — poor trash pickup in front of the building contributed to rodents of all kinds, no matter how diligent my mother was about keeping our space tidy. The violence, while intermittent, was enough to have my mom worried about me coming home off the train after dark.
Despite all that, we had a home, and that meant the world to us. I got to invite friends over without having their parents sign them in with government ID. My mother had a full kitchen to cook in. I taught my little brother how to play basketball in Rucker Park just down the road, and I no longer had to wake up before the sun rose for a 90-minute commute to school.
Now, almost two decades after we originally moved in, much has changed about Harlem, but the frailties of public housing, run by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), are still plagued by many of the same problems. These buildings remain overbooked and underfunded, with a waiting list in the thousands. Many buildings are still not properly up to code, with serious health and safety hazards — consistent heat and hot water issues, unsafe elevators, and lead paint just scratch the surface of infrastructure problems that predate my family’s arrival and continue to persist. And while I may no longer reside there, my mother still calls the beleaguered public housing system home, along with approximately 400,000 other New York City residents, of whom 90% are black and Hispanic.
If Dr. Ben Carson is confirmed by the Republican Senate majority as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), he will be responsible for coordinating and streamlining strategic efforts for affordable housing and community renewal nationwide, a domain which NYCHA falls directly under (as of 2016, it was estimated that around 85% of NYCHA’s Housing Preservation and Development budget fell under federal assistance from HUD). As a result, Carson and his team will be accountable for maintaining and rejuvenating a rapidly deteriorating ecosystem of half-century-old buildings that serve as a lynchpin for a significant number of New Yorkers of color, my mother included.
Not only are the buildings deteriorating and increasingly unsafe, but the funding is rapidly depleting. NYCHA is facing debt in the tens of millions, with federal funding for housing having been slashed by $24 billion nationwide in 2013 by Congress. Efforts by New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio to increase development of affordable housing and tackle the hundreds of thousands of applicants on the waiting list has come at a cost; initiatives to acquire capital have included controversially selling off NYCHA-owned property to the highest bidder in an attempt to level off the rapidly increasing price points of New York’s neighborhoods with the largest populations of lower-income blacks and Hispanics. The erosion of this network would mean the displacement of entire communities, with nowhere to go and no places to afford in a city where the median rent is approximately $3,000 a month. The state of affordable low-income housing in New York is in disrepair and accelerating decline, and Ben Carson — a man with no city planning, urban development, or fiscal policy experience — will, if confirmed, be the one to lead us through it all.
It goes without saying that Carson faces an uphill climb; his seemingly severe lack of qualifications notwithstanding, any person slated to inherit the role would be faced with the quandary of managing a cash-strapped bureaucracy that directly affects millions of lives nationwide. In the face of our ever-present reality, the concern I have for my family and for thousands of others in the city I call home has increased; how can we make sure that a man whose only association to public housing to date has been his team inaccurately claiming that he grew up in a public facility sufficiently understand and address the needs of hundreds of thousands of lives of low-income people of color?
Carson has been noted as saying that “it is not the government’s job” to take care of our neediest populations — a jarring statement coming from someone poised to run a $47 billion agency dedicated to Fair Housing. Instead he has identified the solution to systemic poverty to be rooted in organic community initiatives instead of relying on government assistance, stating that “we the people have the responsibility to take care of the indigent in our society…the government started getting involved in everything…how did that work out? You know, $19 trillion later, 10 times more people on food stamps, more poverty, more welfare, broken homes, out-of-wedlock births, crime, incarceration. Everything is not only worse, it’s much worse,” according to CNN. He further contextualized his ideology with an anecdote: “In the old days of America when communities were separated by hundreds of miles, why were they able to thrive? Because if it was harvest time and the farmer was up in the tree picking apples and fell down and broke his leg, everybody pitched in and harvested his crops for him. If somebody got killed by a bear, everybody took care of their family.” This is all anchored by Carson’s belief that HUD and the federal government has “gone from providing housing to providing warehousing for an unacceptable number of people” and his dismissal of HUD initiatives as “social engineering.”
What seems to escape him, however, is that community building has never ceased. My mom couldn’t afford to give me an allowance, but my next door neighbor would let me tutor her son for some spending money. The family across the hall would let my brother stay there when my mom was working late cleaning houses. When I was in high school and coming home late from extracurriculars or hanging out with friends, it was the local elders who looked out for me and made sure I stayed out of trouble. There are daycares, senior centers, family days — all folding into the idea of communal support in the face of inauspicious conditions.
My family, as well as many others, had built a network of support within our housing complexes — but none of that can outweigh decay and mismanagement. A neighbor can help coordinate childcare, but how do you extend that helping hand to waiting weeks for repairs on a leaking ceiling? Placing the weight on the local residents to maintain their livelihoods and improve their quality of living not only diminishes the work that many of them have already done to create spaces for themselves, but falsely assumes that residents haven’t worked hard enough to combat the encroaching snare of capitalism and affordability in major cities. Simply put, Carson is stepping into the office with a bootstrap approach to affordable housing in low-income neighborhoods; it is this perspective that has me fearful for this gamble of a nomination.
In order for the NYCHA to serve and protect the lower income communities of New York City, significant investments need to be made in public housing’s infrastructure and development — facets that have long failed to be in line with Republican policy, and seemingly aren’t reflected in Carson’s, who has consistently expressed his distaste for government investment in public welfare and housing. This perspective is likely to come at a cost to the millions of beneficiaries of HUD aid across the nation, including the hundreds of thousands of black and Hispanic NYCHA residents across the five boroughs.
As we continue to discuss how “Black Lives Matter,” it is prudent to remember that this phrase does not merely apply in our unwarranted deaths. Conscious and active effort needs to be made to ensure the maintenance and enhancement of the communities that we call home, despite the behemoth of capitalism that threatens to eviscerate low-income communities. Within New York City, many of these lives are consistently striving for a better quality of life within the NYCHA system, including my mom. It is paramount that these livelihoods are defended and that we task Carson with holding true to the objectives of HUD. I, for one, plan to continue to hold accountable the man with my mother’s fate in his hands.