When U.S. Representative Jamaal Bowman visited his childhood home in Harlem’s East River Houses last winter, he was struck by a piece of graffiti at the entrance. The tag read, simply, “Help.” 

For Bowman, it was a fitting testament to the state of New York City’s public housing, which aims to provide “safe, affordable housing” to low- and moderate-income New Yorkers. In recent years, however, the New York City Housing Authority, or NYCHA, has become a poster child of environmental injustice and government neglect. The agency faces a $40 billion backlog of lead paint, mold, heat and gas outages, and myriad other problems to fix. This has translated into a public health crisis for its half-million residents — more than the population of Atlanta, Georgia — which, like so many other symptoms of inequality, has only deepened during the COVID-19 pandemic

NYCHA’s neglected infrastructure also takes a toll on the climate. A study by the agency last year found that its outdated heating systems waste two-thirds of their energy. Those systems are overwhelmingly powered by fuel oil and natural gas. As a result, NYCHA buildings alone produce a whopping 3 percent of New York City’s total carbon emissions. 

Brooklyn public housing
Public housing in Brooklyn, New York. Erik McGregor / LightRocket via Getty Images

But soon, NYCHA may have the funding to address its habitability issues and emissions problem hand in hand. Top Democrats in Washington, D.C., are promising $80 billion in funding for public housing as part of their $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package. NYCHA, as the largest and most distressed of the country’s housing authorities, could be eligible for up to half of the total funding

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NYCHA’s updated sustainability agenda, published last week, offers a glimpse of what the agency could do with that kind of funding. The program highlights goals like deep energy retrofits, solar roofs, and community gardens as part of what Steven Lovci, NYCHA’s executive vice president of capital projects, calls a “holistic approach” to restoring the promise of public housing. 

So far, these goals remain largely aspirational. But such a transformation is well underway in other cities around the world — perhaps none more than Paris, which has been retrofitting thousands of public housing units per year for more than a decade. The city’s ambitious retrofit campaign may offer some insights into how American housing authorities like NYCHA could make essential repairs while also reducing building emissions, and respecting tenants’ rights during tricky renovations.

Paris’ public housing stock has faced many of the same woes as its U.S. counterparts. Public or “social” housing construction boomed in Paris during what Americans think of as the New Deal era. As in the U.S., many of the public housing developments built at that time have since seen a dramatic decline, with some plagued by mold, pests, and crime. And in Paris, too, the waiting list for public housing has surged as tenants seek to escape spiraling rents in the private market.

a woman faces two doors with green trim inside a small hallway
A woman stands in front of two doors in Paris’ Marcadet public housing building Grist / Colin Kinniburgh

In the past decade, Paris has worked hard to reverse these trends — and to align social housing with its larger climate goals. Socialist mayor (and now French presidential candidate) Anne Hidalgo has made social housing a cornerstone of local policy. And the city’s social housing agencies — a cluster of public and semi-public entities with roots in France’s “mixed economy” — are working to do their part to meet the city’s climate plan, which calls for 60 percent energy savings in residential buildings by 2030. Some of the city’s oldest and largest developments have been buzzing with construction as social housing agencies replace everything from cracked tiles to elevators to heating systems in a bid to make these buildings both more habitable and more energy efficient.

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Among them is Paris’s tallest residential building, the 39-story Prelude tower, which stands in a monumental 1970s-era complex at the heart of the working-class 19th arrondissement, or district. By the early 2000s, the tower and other buildings in the complex were beginning to show significant wear, with chipping-off tiles endangering residents below. 

In 2015, the social housing agency Immobilière 3F began upgrading the buildings from the outside in, adding an extra three inches of exterior insulation to the Prelude tower and encasing it in steel. 3F also replaced windows, heating systems, and electrical wiring.

The Prelude tower (right) stands in a monumental 1970s-era complex in a working-class section of Paris. In 2015, the social housing agency Immobilière 3F began upgrades to the building, such as replacing windows (left) and installing new heating systems. Photos by Grist / Colin Kinniburgh.

Emmanuelle Sautereau, head of renovations at the agency, said the remodel sought to cut the tower’s energy use in half, in an early test of Paris’s climate plan. That goal has just about been met: Sabrina Buron, who acts as 3F’s tenant liaison, said energy bills have dropped by 47 percent — although, four years after construction wrapped up, tenants grumble that they’re still paying an $18 monthly surcharge to help cover the costs of the retrofit.

One of the advantages of insulating the tower mainly from the outside, Sautereau said, is that residents never had to move out for more than 10 days. At $21 million, it was also relatively cheap, working out to less than $50,000 for each of the 464 units renovated. 

NYCHA has tested a similar approach as part of its revamp of the Baychester Houses in the Bronx, a flagship for the Rental Assistance Demonstration program, or RAD, which relies on transferring the building to private management. The $170 million, 720-unit rehab, which included giving the buildings new facades, has been lauded as a successful example of privatization, though tenant organizers aren’t convinced, since privatization has in some cases led to shoddy repairs and a spike in evictions.

Plants flank the entrance to the Baychester building in the Bronx. New York City Housing Authority

Paris’s renovations have been carried out without this kind of privatization, thanks to a combination of funding from the city, state, and France’s public investment bank. Lately the city has turned its attention to some of its hardest-to-fix buildings, where simply replacing the facade is not an option. 

One of these is the Marcadet apartments in the 18th arrondissement, which show how housing authorities can do costlier, more complex renovations — without infringing too much on tenants’ comfort. Built in the early 1920s, the complex belongs to an early generation of public housing complexes lining the city’s outskirts. Joana Da Nova, manager of renovations at the city’s main housing public housing agency, Paris Habitat, said the buildings have held up well. But their stately brick facades masked drafty windows, dated heating systems, and poor ventilation, sometimes leading to mold.

Under the city’s climate plan, Paris Habitat is giving the nearly 500-unit complex a major facelift. It’s been replacing doors, windows, elevators, and boilers; remodeling bathrooms; installing new ventilation systems; and re-insulating interior walls with cork, a natural and deeply sustainable material. 

Marcadet public housing in Paris.
Marcadet public housing in Paris. Colin Kinniburgh

Construction at Marcadet started in 2020 and is expected to last until 2024, at a cost of $42 million, or $89,000 per unit. But that’s only half the process. Da Nova said studies and consultation with residents took more than two years; Paris Habitat then revamped a few initial apartments as a demonstration before bringing the final plan before residents for a vote.

Tenants’ input and support is critical, especially considering some of them have to vacate their homes for months at a time during the renovations. For the most part, though, displaced residents haven’t had to go far; they’re able to stay within the complex, as Paris Habitat has intentionally kept about 50 apartments empty to host tenants while their units are being repaired. 

Adrienne Aye, 72, has lived at Marcadet since 2011, when her previous building was sold and skyrocketing market rents nearly left her “out on the street.” A former supermarket manager who now lives on a fixed pension, Aye pays about $470 a month for her two-bedroom apartment, one of the first in the complex to get an upgrade. She is broadly happy with the repairs, but avoids the elevator after some early malfunctions, and said she would prefer a building-wide heating system to the in-unit gas boilers that Paris Habitat has just replaced. 

Adrienne Aye
Cabinets in Aye's apartment

Former supermarket manager Adrienne Aye, left, has lived at Marcadet since 2011. Her two-bedroom apartment (right) was one of the first in the building to undergo upgrades. Photos by Grist / Colin Kinniburgh.

That points to an essential challenge for American housing authorities as they weigh renovations. Replacing fossil fuel appliances with electric ones is at least as important to decarbonization as improving energy efficiency. 

“We have to stop burning fossil fuels in buildings, period,” said Bomee Jung, a green buildings expert at the firm Steven Winter Associates and former vice president for energy and sustainability at NYCHA. U.S. retrofits should prioritize switching to electric heating systems such as heat pumps, Jung said. (Paris Habitat didn’t respond to Grist’s request for comment on why it elected to stick with gas boilers.) 

Electrification is a major undertaking, but one that Lovci said NYCHA is already planning for. Lovci also said the public housing allocation in the Democrats’ reconciliation package would go a “long, long way” towards making it a reality. 

The Democrats’ proposal falls short of the Green New Deal for Public Housing championed by Bowman and other progressives in Congress, but advocates see it as a clear step in that direction. Their greatest concern now is whether it will actually pass. If conservative-leaning Democrats like Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia get their way and cut the bill down, public housing will face fierce competition with other party priorities. But housing advocates are pressing Democratic leaders to get the funding onto Biden’s desk. 

“This is the bare minimum,” said Cea Weaver, an organizer with New York’s Housing Justice for All coalition and the national Homes Guarantee campaign, which sent a delegation of renters to D.C. last week to keep up the pressure on Democratic leaders.

U.S. housing authorities need some fixes, however, that no amount of money can buy. Chief among them is rebuilding trust, as decades of mismanagement and outright fraud have left tenant organizers skeptical that agencies like NYCHA are prepared to spend a massive infusion of federal dollars wisely. 

La Keesha Taylor, organizer and co-founder of the Holmes-Isaacs Coalition, which represents NYCHA tenants on the Upper East Side, said tenants had been “fighting for this money for a long time” and that NYCHA needs to “open the books” if it really wants to show that it can turn around.

NYCHA has already undertaken significant organizational reforms since 2019, when it reached a court agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development over its mishandling of lead paint, mold, and other issues. A federal monitor now oversees all of NYCHA’s major decisions and repair work, including the $2.2 billion in spending that the city forked out under the agreement.

Public housing in New York City, where investigators claim that water leaks, holes in walls, lead paint, mold, malfunctioning elevators, and rats were a part of daily life for thousands of residents. Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Lovci credited the additional funding with dramatically speeding up repairs, and moreover pointed to the agency’s renewed efforts to involve residents in decision-making as evidence that real change is afoot. 

”The linchpin of the current capital program,” Lovci said, “is stakeholder engagement.”

Still, change is slow, and organizers remain on their guard. They are adamant that any new spending to restore public housing is conditioned on keeping it fully public, and not shifting  tenants to Section 8 vouchers. Ramona Ferreyra, a tenant organizer at the Bronx’s Mitchel Houses and co-founder of Save Section 9, says it’s also important that retrofit jobs go to union workers. 

For Taylor, a 48-year-old mother of two and lifelong resident of NYCHA’s Holmes Towers, these kinds of conditions are just the start of the improvements she wants to see. Beyond technical fixes like mold remediation, she would like to see green spaces expanded and gates torn down so that developments like hers feel more open and free. 

“We should not feel boxed in,” she said. 

Moreover, Taylor said, real change would mean respecting tenants’ efforts to improve their own living conditions. She described a recent cleanup day that she and the Holmes-Isaacs Coalition led with the development’s community center — only to find themselves accosted by a building manager, who assumed they were dumping trash rather than picking it up. 

“I was like, ‘What is wrong with you?’” Taylor said. “It doesn’t need to be that way.”