Housing Generations | Life in the Projects: An Uncertain Future

Friday, December 21, 2012

Four generations of Alstons gather at Virgie Alston's apartment at the Queensbridge Houses. Four generations of Alstons gather at Virgie Alston's apartment at the Queensbridge Houses. (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

WNYC is telling the story of public housing in New York City through the lens of one family that has lived there for four decades. The Alstons arrived in the Queensbridge Houses in 1954 and have lived there ever since. This is part four of a four-part series.

The Alston family’s future at the Queensbridge Houses is as uncertain as the future of public housing itself. 

They have been a fixture at the Long Island City housing complex for more than half a century — but most family members say more and more relatives are attending college and few return after graduating.

“Ten to 20 years? No way,” said Chick Alston, the patriarch of the family, sitting on a bench at the center of the housing complex where he and his 11 siblings grew up. “I think in the next five to 10 years most of the next young crew will be gone. And they don’t have kids so it won’t like a bunch of Alstons left hanging here.”

But the future of public housing in New York City similarly hangs in the balance. The New York City Housing Authority is the nation’s largest landlord. For years the federal government has been decreasing its funding. Many of its aging buildings are in need of major infrastructure overhauls and nearly half of its housing stock is located in low-lying areas susceptible to flooding and other vulnerabilities, as evidenced by Sandy.

“There’s been a two to three-decades long disinvestment in public housing nationally, which in many cities has led to the disinvestment, which has then led to disrepair, which is then led to demolition. We are fighting to ensure that that doesn’t happen here in New York,” NYCHA chairman John Rhea told WNYC. “The reality is that under-funding really does put that housing stock itself at risk.”

Queensbridge House under construction Stephen Nessen/ WNYC

Before Sandy, the authority said it needed $6 billion to maintain its stock of more than 178,000 apartments. But the storm toll will likely push that figure higher since 402 buildings were damaged in Coney Island, the Rockaways and Red Hook, leaving many without electricity, heat and elevators for days or even weeks. NYCHA is asking the federal government to help cover the storm costs.

Seventy percent of the city’s public housing is 40 years old or older and many need major infrastructure overhauls, brick and roof repair, elevator replacement and other vital renovations to keep them functional, experts said.

Owen Gutfreund is director of the Urban Affairs program at Hunter College and says buildings from the early 1940s were built well, but they weren't meant to last forever.

“For a project built in 1939 like the Queensbridge Houses — you’re going on three-quarters of a century with only the reactive day-to-day repairs being done, and even those are done late,” Gutfreund said. “But the idea that some of the core infrastructure would need to be replaced as normally happens is far out of reach of NYCHA’s budget.”

At Queensbridge, scaffolding around the buildings has been there as long as anyone can remember. A number of elevators, like so many in public housing, perpetually smell of urine, and front door locks often do not work.

And yet, wait-lists to get in are consistently long. The average stay in Queensbridge is about 18 years, and city-wide it’s about 20 years. There are more than 161,000 people waiting to get an apartment in public housing.

Rhea said Queensbridge is “one of those true public works” that put Americans to work, housed them and gave them a place to live, grow and be proud.

“Public Housing still plays an important role in that same American progression story,” he said.

Unlike a traditional landlord, the authority can’t rely on rent to pay the bills.

NYCHA is funded primarily through federal grants that have been steadily decreasing. It has received $1 billion from the federal government since 2009, money it says is used for replacing roofs, elevators and upgrading heating systems and refrigerators in the apartments. Earlier this year, the Daily News reported that NYCHA misused the funds.

Rhea, the authority's chief, refutes the claim made by the paper but acknowledged that there is waste at the agency. In August, NYCHA said it was reorganizing the authority’s board — removing two mayoral appointees who make more than $187,000. But thus far, no changes to the board have been made.

Ahead of Sandy, NYCHA noted in its annual Plan NYCHA report, that it expects a $13 billion capital shortfall through 2015 at the current rate of funding.

Rhea, who previously worked in the financial services industry for Lehman Brothers and earned an MBA from Harvard, recently unveiled a plan he hopes will raise millions of dollars for NYCHA, by lending land to private developers.

Rhea’s plan calls for creating more mixed-income building that allocates 20 percent for low income residents, but he said this doesn't mean NYCHA is being privatized, something residents say they have feared for years.

Dr. Sharon Alston, center, her brother Keith, right, and younger, college graduates from the Alston family at a Mother's Day party. Stephen Nessen/ WNYC

Many Alstons Checking Out of Public Housing

While legacy families, like the Alstons have been a fixture at Queensbridge for more than half a century — most family members say it won't remain that way. Many have branched out to nearby housing projects. And still others, college-educated Alstons, have left for school and won’t come back.

Sharon Alston, 46, is Chick’s sister, the youngest of her 12 siblings, the baby in the family. Today, she’s a full-time social worker in Washington, D.C., and an adjunct professor at George Mason University.

When she’s back at Queensbridge, she’s reverently referred to as Dr. Alston. She has a Ph.D. from Howard University.

During her frequent visits to Queensbridge she sleeps on the saggy leather sofa in her mother Virgie’s cluttered living room. Above the TV is a photo of Sharon and President George W. Bush at the White House Christmas party.

Many Alstons from the third generation are college graduates. They've received various scholarships and are planning careers far from Queensbridge.

Jason Alston, 26, is back, and is preparing for law school. He doesn’t judge those that stayed in Queensbridge, like his cousin Fredo.

“You can’t really question a man for carving out his own path. There’s some things that Fredo experienced and learned that I may never learn and experience,” Jason said. “And that may make him a better man. That may have equipped him for life in a different way.”  

And even though her big brother Chick, 16 years her elder, is a legend in the neighborhood, he too sees an uncertain future at Queensbridge. He said he’s thinking about heading to North Carolina. Enjoy the weather—spend some time with his daughter and grandkids, who are already there.

His parents moved to New York from Henderson, North Carolina in the 1940s, and he says it’s about time he headed back there. His mother, Virgie, still lives at Queensbridge, but doesn’t think she’ll leave.

While Queensbridge gave the Alstons a place to expand, and for many to get old together—owning an apartment was not part of the deal. The closest they came to claiming anything there, was a piece of grass under a tree where the patriarch, Walter Alston held regular barbeques.

And when the Alstons stop this yearly ritual, another family will take that spot. And their apartments will be scrubbed of any trace of the Alstons to make way for the next family.



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Comments [3]

Heather from Chicago

Note: This is in relation to Chicago Housing Projects in which I dedicated a year of my studies on while earning my Bachelors in Architecture.

In Chicago the development of housing projects were in response to developers and city officials who saw the low-income neighborhoods as profitable. So they delivered false information and empty promises that they were going to give these families who once owned/rented homes and put them in new Modern beautiful buildings that would be patrolled and maintained in exchange for their land and homes. The tax dollars that were used by the government were not given out of pity or to help them, it was used as a buy off to make more money for the city and the developers. Granted they were slums and their was a need for a clean up but they were owned property.

So what did the residents really get??? 40-story blocked buildings that were too large to keep safe and be maintained. Other than their own unit - they no longer had property which they could legally say is their own so protecting your neighborhood is nearly impossible and basically hinged on weather or not cops were actually patrolling the areas (which they rarely were). The neighborhoods are usually on the outskirts with few businesses around for hiring and since most can not afford a car or sitter long enough for them to go to work then actually gaining employment becomes more difficult. High poverty, high unemployment, large areas not patrolled or legally belonging to anyone and not to mention most of the complexes are set next to highways allowing quick and easy access for trafficking of any sort creates a breeding ground for illegal activity which ALL ECONOMIC LEVELS AND RACES PARTAKE IN! This becomes an issue for all Americans and not just the ones that live in the units.

My research on low-income housing and how it can be improved concluded that affordable housing that is safe and comfortable can be developed but with tax dollars focused on research and programs to help develop rich and vibrant communities. With the way our economy is going - mass employment layoffs, foreclosures, "tent cities", etc. We are going to need affordable housing more than ever and hopefully developers/investors see the potential.

This was a great report on the face of the residents that live in these communities and I hope it can change the attitude as well as the overly lacking awareness of what is really going on with these communities - both the positive and negative.

Jul. 10 2013 01:10 PM

Valerie you are correct as public housing was to aide families to advance up the social ladder which it has and still does. Some individuals are disabled and living in Public housing is the only place they can live and still survive. Now if you knew anything about Queensbridge Houses or any other housing development you would know that we have produced actors, actresses, rappers, executives, politicians, musicians, writers etc. I myself have a both a Bachelors & Masters Degree, and retired from the military so saying someone is lazy and a disgrace for residing in public housing your totally wrong. Come visit Queensbridge is a huge family everyone knows everyone.

Jan. 16 2013 12:42 PM
valerie johnson from fort worth, tx

The concept of public housing was based on the assumption that citizens would use this assistance to move their families upward socially. NO family should remain in the projects of any American city, even for ONE full generation! Stop being lazy, get off of the public dole, go to school, learn a trade, get a job-get out of our tax pockets! If families need assistance with housing, this should only last a few months to a few years at most. This family is a disgrace, just like all of the other families who live in the projects generation after generation! This was NOT the initial concept behind government assisted housing! Shame, shame, shame!

Dec. 25 2012 10:03 PM

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