Yonkers’ Affordable-Housing Fight Isn’t Over

An interview with the city’s public housing chief, more than two decades after the events of HBO’s Show Me a Hero.

From left to right, Oscar Isaac, Angela Pietropinto, Josh Salatin, Jessica Denson, Michael Stahl-David, and Carla Quevedo in HBO’€™s Show Me a Hero.

Photo courtesy Paul Schiraldi/HBO

For the last two weeks, HBO’s six-episode social drama Show Me a Hero spotlighted a topic that doesn’t tend to get a lot of attention from Hollywood: affordable-housing policy. Co-written by David Simon, the showrunner of The Wire, Show Me a Hero documents the polarizing conflict over the court-ordered construction of 200 units of public housing on the predominantly white east side of Yonkers. While—hey, spoiler alert—the series ended in tragedy for Nick Wasicsko, the young mayor portrayed by Oscar Isaac, it closes in triumph for the residents lucky enough to win one of the new units. But what is the fate of Yonkers, and its public housing, more than 20 years after the court case and subsequent political battle that Show Me a Hero dramatized?

The agency that oversees the homes at the heart of Show Me a Hero is the Municipal Housing Authority for the city of Yonkers, whose head for the last eight and a half years has been Joseph Shuldiner. He began his career just to the south in New York City, rising from a tenant advocate to general manager of the New York City Housing Authority and its approximately 180,000 units of public housing. Afterward, Shuldiner worked for the Los Angeles Housing Authority and President Clinton’s Department of Housing and Urban Development, which dispatched him to lead the notoriously dysfunctional Chicago Housing Authority out of federal receivership in 1995.

Shuldiner’s stewardship of Yonkers should be simple by comparison. But in 2011, HUD reported that the nation’s housing programs faced $25.6 billion in capital repairs. Instead of helping out, Congress has been starving federally dependent housing authorities—cutting public housing’s capital and operating funds by a quarter since 2001—and forcing many, including Yonkers, to try to exit the New Deal-era program to find relief from the private sector. The Yonkers Municipal Housing Authority operates about 2,000 units of public housing and oversees more than 2,700 families who use federal Section 8 vouchers to afford housing on the market.

Slate spoke with Shuldiner about the effects that the affordable townhomes at the center of Show Me a Hero had on their neighborhoods; the vision of Oscar Newman, the controversial architect and planner who designed Yonkers’ affordable housing; and how to balance the integration of affordable housing into middle-class communities with improving units in impoverished neighborhoods. The interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

Has Show Me a Hero captured the controversies and struggles of building and maintaining public housing?

There is always community resistance to affordable housing. People believe that affordable housing will bring down the value of their property and bring in people who are not desirable. I don’t think in most cases that’s proven to be the case.

The best example is happening right now in Yonkers. Some of those townhomes—the smallest actual grouping was built on Valentine Street (14 units), and there was a lot of community opposition. Today a developer built nine single-family homes in what was a wooded area right next to the public housing. The price of those homes is higher than the price of the housing across the street. The presence of the affordable housing has had very little or no negative impact on values in the neighborhood.

Twenty years later, how has the east-side public housing at the center of Show Me a Hero fared?

Oscar Newman had his own view of what housing should be like. There are no common spaces, no space for recreation, no playgrounds. Each townhouse has its own fence and backyard. There are seven different locations and no community space, so if the residents want to meet somewhere and it’s more than the amount of people who can fit in an apartment, they’d have to meet in a library or school. Because of the nature of the scattered sites, they aren’t all in one neighborhood. … There are specific things about the design that we wouldn’t have put in if we were designing it.

What about repair needs?

The physical needs assessment is that they need $60,000 or $65,000 a unit worth of work. That’s not an amount we can ever hope to obtain in the public housing program. Just to give you an idea, our physical needs assessment for all of our developments in the next 10 years is about $175 million and we get $3 million a year. There’s no way we are getting from here to there. We need a vehicle for additional financing through borrowing or being able to apply for tax credits. [Yonkers has applied to convert all of its public housing units out of the traditional public housing program so it can access private capital]. 

Is most of Yonkers’ subsidized housing still concentrated in southwestern Yonkers today?

There hasn’t been any additional public housing built since the townhomes. The ratios have changed but not because we added units on the east side, but because we have subtracted units from the southwest side. The concentration is less so only because we demolished some of the stuff that was on the southwest side and replaced it with fewer units.

After the time period covered in the show, how many public housing units were demolished as a result of Bill Clinton’s HOPE VI program?

Only one housing complex has been destroyed, and that’s Mulford [opened in 1940]. That was 550 units demolished. We’ve restored about 385 of those units. The replacement housing is all in the same neighborhood. But the number of Section 8 vouchers has skyrocketed. There are many more affordable-housing units within our purview because we have about 2,000 units of public housing, over 3,000 units of Section 8 [of which only 2,700 are under lease currently], and about 385 mixed-income units.

Are most voucher holders also concentrated in the southwest of Yonkers?

The limits of vouchers are that people have to go where there is rental housing. We actually pay an organization to work with people on the Section 8 waiting list and encourage them to move to nonimpacted [not poverty-stricken] neighborhoods. But if they are successful, those vouchers are lost and it doesn’t really show up in our total.

Is there any way to reconcile the tension between trying to integrate lower-income housing, like you are with those on the Section 8 waiting list, and maintaining the great majority of units that are still in poor areas? 

 If you look at Judge Leonard Sand’s decision 30 years ago, he argues that if all the public housing was built in one neighborhood, the answer is to build it in another neighborhood. But if all the upwardly mobile minority people move to other neighborhoods, the result is that you’ve left behind even worse concentrations of poverty.

Physically doing it is tough enough, but the philosophical issues are even more difficult. We really need to maximize the number of viable communities with affordable-housing opportunities. That means both getting affordable housing into already viable communities but it also means making the poverty-concentrated areas viable so that they will attract other-than-low-income people.