Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: U.S. Hands Tax Cuts to Wealthy While Housing Cuts Leave Kids With Lead Poisoning, Sewage in Apartments

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York argued that it was time for the U.S. to address the impact of more than two decades of public housing cuts, which she said had left children in her district with lead poisoning and asthma problems, and decried the government handing out tax cuts to corporations "and the exceedingly wealthy."

Questioning a panel of experts during a House Committee on Financial Services Committee hearing on the state of housing in America, Ocasio-Cortez asked Adrianne Todman, CEO of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, whether she agreed that trying to make repairs to a home "after 20 years of neglect" would ultimately be "much more expensive to repair at the end of that 20 years than if you just invest in routine maintenance."

After Todman concurred, Ocasio-Cortez pointed out that despite that, for more than 20 years, the federal government had "neglected" to prioritize the New York City Housing Authority's (NYCHA) developments and "failed to invest for more than 400,000 New Yorkers" after decades of disinvestment.

"So, now we have about two decades of complete neglect and that bill for two decades of neglect is a lot bigger than if we had just invested in that routine maintenance," Ocasio-Cortez said.

How big is that price tag? "$32 billion," the New York representative said. "That is what is owed to New York City's housing authority alone. $32 billion. But what does that billion in neglect look like?"

Sharing stories from her district, Ocasio-Cortez described how in one part of the Bronx, "sewage flows into an apartment when it rains and water leaks through the roof."

Meanwhile, children in the area "have blood lead levels hitting eight times the amount that prompts health department action," Ocasio-Cortez said. This was a reference to New York's lead paint scandal, with tens of thousands of homes containing the harmful product. "Eight-hundred children under the age of six living in NYCHA housing tested positive for high levels of lead between 2012 and 2016 during the federal disinvestment period.

"While already in decay, Hurricane Sandy devastated many housing developments whose boilers were located in the basement and they...continue to struggle with that replacement," Ocasio-Cortez continued. "During the winter, residents have to open their gas ovens to heat their apartments because the disinvestment has prevented and tied the housing authority from being able to replace these heating systems. People are going without hot water and heating during the winter time."

Other residents, Ocasio-Cortez said, "have to put up with the stench of pervasive mold," which, she noted, also triggers residents' asthma.

Turning to Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Ocasio-Cortez asked: "Ms. Yentel, do you believe that all of these horrific cases were necessary or were they unnecessary in terms of the government's disinvestment?"

"Those kinds of health consequences are unnecessary and shameful," Yentel quickly replied, adding that they should also be considered a "direct result of disinvestment over decades into the repairs necessary to upkeep those homes."

"So," Ocasio-Cortez summarized, "it was completely unnecessary for these kids to get lead in their blood, it was completely unnecessary for these families to live through winter without heat. It was completely unnecessary for these families and children to breathe in mold and we did it anyway because we decided that their lives and that their housing was not worthy of federal investment...Would you say that's correct?"

"I would," Yentel replied. "I'd say that the funding that is required to keep those homes at a decent safe level has been underfunded for decades."

Ocasio-Cortez then slammed the U.S. government for choosing to invest in the country's military, as well as in also expanding fossil fuel subsidies to oil and gas companies and providing tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy, while failing to invest in public housing.

"People made excuses that these investments were unaffordable and that there was no money. We exploded our military budget, we expanded fossil fuel subsidies to oil and gas companies and we continue to provide tax cuts to corporations and the exceedingly wealthy that didn't need them," she said.

"Yet, at the same time, folks have the audacity to say that there's no money for public housing and that we can't afford for children to have clean blood and clean water. I mean this is morally wrong and it's also fiscally unnecessary."

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Manhattan U.S. Attorney's office were reported to have selected a federal monitor, Bart Schwartz, to oversee NYCHA as part of a larger agreement struck between the two for greater federal oversight over New York City's housing authority.

The broader agreement demands that the city invest an additional $1 billion over the next four years into NYCHA, which has struggled to meet residents' basic housing needs after decades of disinvestment, with $200 million per year expected to follow after the four-year term.

The funding is expected to be put towards addressing the most pressing issues affecting residents, including the city's lead paint scandal, heating issues, mold and rodent infestations.

Newsweek has contacted NYCHA and Bart Schwartz for comment on this article.

New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez listens during a House Financial Services Committee hearing on April 10, 2019 in Washington, D.C. Ocasio-Cortez has said it is time for the U.S. to address the impacts of decades of disinvestment in public housing. Alex Wroblewski/Getty