Esther Swan grew up in public housing, graduated from college and has thrived professionally, most recently as a talent director for an entertainment company.
But while the buildings in New York City’s housing projects deteriorated around her, with siblings and neighbors moving out, Ms. Swan stayed put, holding on to her apartment in the Fulton Houses, in Chelsea.
Her low rent allowed her to pay for good child care and a parish school for her son, and now as the cost of private housing has soared across much of the city, not least in a booming neighborhood like Chelsea, Ms. Swan, 55, does not see herself leaving anytime soon.
“Staying at Fulton helped me to continue to follow my dream,” she said.
For many families in public housing, it is a rite of passage to one day move into private rentals or buy their own homes. But in another sign of the affordability challenges facing New Yorkers, many others are staying longer, if not for life, even when making a decent living. That has forced New York to balance two critical, yet opposing, objectives: to maintain economic diversity in the crumbling housing projects, and to make room for its neediest residents.
Some have begun to ask whether the New York City Housing Authority, with its 178,000 apartments and waiting list of 270,000 families, should be doing more to persuade higher-earning residents to leave, given the dire need for housing, particularly among homeless people. Last month, an audit by the inspector general of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development recommended that the authority, known as Nycha, and its counterparts in other cities should coax those families out, a move opposed by both HUD and the authorities.
According to the audit, about 10,000 of Nycha’s tenants last year, or about 5 percent of households, earned more than the eligibility threshold for an apartment, which is now $69,050 for a family of four in the city. A family must earn less than the threshold to get an apartment but does not have to leave if it begins earning more. And in fact, New York’s and other housing authorities have encouraged those families to stay, saying they are positive role models and keep the projects from becoming isolated pockets of poverty.
They also pay the highest rents. Now the federal government has directed Nycha and other public housing authorities to lean more heavily on such residents, imposing rent increases on them to help replace federal subsidies that have been shrinking even as maintenance needs mount.
In explaining why they stay, some of the residents, especially older adults, say they feel bound to their neighborhoods and communities. Others who might have dreamed of upward mobility say the time to consider moving out has passed them by as housing costs have soared. That is especially true in housing projects in relatively safe and stable neighborhoods, like Chelsea, where it would be impossible to find comparable housing at anything close to what public housing tenants pay.
The average tenure of public housing residents in the city is now 22 years, up from 19 in 2005 and 17 in 1995.
“You can’t afford to move,” said Michael Acevedo, 26, a third-generation resident at Fulton Houses who lives in his parents’ four-bedroom apartment with his sister, three cousins and the baby of one of the cousins.
Mr. Acevedo, a floor installer, said he longed to someday be married and “live in a house like in Jersey or have a nice apartment somewhere in the city.” Together, the Acevedos may make enough to afford something nicer, but not individually, at least not if they want to stay close to their jobs in the city.
The government has tried to carve out space for working families by giving them preference on the wait list for apartments. While public housing tenants generally pay up to 30 percent of their income as rent, the city tried to encourage self-sufficiency among upwardly mobile families by capping their rents. But in recent years, rents have been rising significantly for the higher earners, who contribute a disproportionate share to the housing authority’s budget. About a third of the agency’s operating budget comes from rent, and improved collection of rents now figures prominently in its plan to overcome large deficits and preserve public housing.
Some of those high-earning tenants complain that the services do not warrant the higher rents. While the increases are not prompting an exodus, they have made some residents less tolerant of chronic problems like mold.
Jackie Keller, 68, a former fingerprints clerk in the New York Police Department who lives at Manhattanville Houses in Harlem, said her floors in the hallway of her two-bedroom “leak” from old piping. Her rent went up this year by more than $100 to $1,185 a month. (The average Nycha rent is $484.) She hopes the higher rent goes toward new pipes so she does not have to mop up the water or keep a thick piece of carpet over it, as Nycha workers advised her, she said, while they searched for the source of the leak.
But while her rent is at the high end of a Nycha two-bedroom, Mrs. Keller said she would never move.
“I feel safe here,” she said. “I know everybody.”
But the agency has long faced demands from competing constituencies, and that has been especially true as the city endures record levels of homelessness.
“A family making $60,000 a year can find an apartment to rent,” said Patrick Markee, until recently the deputy executive director for advocacy at the Coalition for the Homeless. “It’s tough, but they have a better chance than a family making $20,000 a year.”
The HUD inspector general recommended that higher-earning residents should be nudged out to make room for needier families, but HUD and Nycha do not agree. Nycha says that high-income residents are positive examples for their communities and that their departure would put the agency in an even deeper financial hole.
The audit cited the case of one family in a three-bedroom that earned almost $500,000 a year and paid $1,574 a month. Nycha called the family an “extreme outlier,” and the audit found that among the 25,200 families around the country that exceeded public housing income limits, 53 percent did so by $10,000 or less.
Many tenants still aspire to move out of the housing projects. Reuben Torres, 27, who lives with his mother in Throggs Neck Houses in the Bronx, said he was waiting to land the job he coveted, as a police officer, to move out.
Mr. Torres, who graduated last year from Lehman College with a degree in history and works for a city agency answering a help line, said most of his friends had moved on. So have a sister and his twin brother — City Councilman Ritchie Torres, who is chairman of the Public Housing Committee. Reuben Torres said his public housing roots went back to his grandmother, and “I don’t want it to be a generational thing.”
“Once that salary goes up, I’m going to leave,” he said. “I’ve always dreamed of living in an apartment in Manhattan. I want to live in a nice, gentrified area. Like you meet somebody, you’ll say, ‘This is where I live.’ It’s a sense of accomplishment.”
At Fulton Houses, Mr. Acevedo’s father, Miguel, 55, is the only one among 11 siblings to remain. His mother, now 84, still lives in the apartment where he grew up. He said he appreciated living in one of the most desirable parts of the city.
Mr. Acevedo and his wife, Dawn Castro, an administrative assistant for investment advisers, pay over $1,800 in rent, but during a recent visit the lobby smelled of urine and a stairwell was littered with food scraps. The 11 buildings in the complex need millions of dollars in maintenance and renovation work, as do most of the city’s 328 housing projects.
Ms. Castro hopes to move in the not-so-distant future. She said she was waiting for her daughter to finish high school to try to persuade her husband to leave New York for “a little grass, a little less noise.”
But Mr. Acevedo, a school custodian who presides over the residents’ association, is not budging. He said friends had called to say they regretted leaving and to ask him, “What can we do to move back to Fulton?”
“Where am I going to get a four-bedroom in Chelsea?” he added. “I look at the big picture.”