10/05/2011 02:07 am ET Updated Dec 05, 2011

The New York City Housing Authority Should Be More Democratic

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) has a new funding proposal for NYC public housing: ad space on the buildings. According to the NY Daily News, NYCHA plans to sell public space to advertisers in order to raise revenue for NYCHA developments. Housing Authority officials promise that these adverts will be in good taste -- no alcohol, no cigarettes, and no McDonalds or Burger King - and that they will be useful to the community. But here's the big question: who will determine what is useful? Let's be clear, I am in total agreement that NYCHA residents should not be inundated with posters, flyers, and billboards that influence them to make bad decisions about their health and personal finances. But there's more to this story than the substance of the advertisements. What about the process?

NYCHA has said that Housing Authority residents will be consulted about any campaign. There's good reason to be suspicious about this claim. After all, this proposal wasn't brought to Housing residents first. It was only discovered after a reporter dug up the NYCHA's request for a consultant. But moving beyond this, in principle, community consultation is not the kind of community empowerment we need. NYCHA prefers that decisions about the content and placement of ads be made with input, yes, but ultimately the final decision rests with them. I believe NYCHA residents should be more thoroughly included in decisions about their community. They should have more than a voice, they should have a vote.

The New York City Housing Authority serves over 170,000 families who live developments across the five boroughs. If NYCHA were a city, it would rank 22nd in population size (New York City ranks first). And that is what makes NYCHA's approach all the more questionable. Every year, NYCHA tenants participate in community elections and many are elected to represent other residents as members of their development's Resident's Association. There are 45 Resident Presidents and coordinated Executive Committees who represent over 300 developments. In most other places in America, NYCHA residents would be local officials, capable of casting a vote. Instead, they are relegated to an advisory capacity in our City.

The two pillars of democracy, individual rights and equality, rest upon a more fundamental principle: self-government. We should give these residents a formal opportunity to make the decision about these advertisements. They, in cooperation with NYCHA, would be best able to determine what their communities need. After all, not every decision will be as simple as denying space to Absolut vodka or Newport cigarettes. What if the US Armed Forces wants to advertise in these communities? Should bureaucrats be deciding whether the Army, Navy, and Air Force offer legitimate opportunities? I believe that decision should be left to the residents, many of whom are mothers or fathers for NYCHA's roughly 180,000 minors.