Will We Always be Fixing?

Twenty years ago, Fred and I were invited to an intimate gathering of tech founders and senators. It was memorable for many reasons, but the one that has always stuck with me is our Government’s inability to break glass, be bold and make game-changing decisions. These days it seems to infuriate me more.

There were just as many tech founders at this particular event as there were senators, and that alone changed the conversation. Bill and Hillary Clinton were there too. Schumer ran the event. We each talked about issues that were near and dear to our hearts. At the time, I was chairing MOUSE, an organization that empowers students with technology.

My question was simple. Why don’t we spend the money it takes and fix the problems from kids going home without access to the internet (aka the digital divide) and put the money needed into public schools, getting rid of all the fat? God forbid that should happen. Why? Pure and simple, politics. I don’t want to upset anybody. And most important, how can we do just enough to change the directions, make some impact, and at the same time stay in power, make everyone feel good, and get re-elected. If they had made some bold decisions 20 years ago, we wouldn’t be where we are now.

Covid forced education to change and wake up. Where we will go in the post-pandemic world, unclear but forcing education to move into the future was fueled by Covid. Private industry around education was ready, willing, and able. Let’s see what comes next.

If we went to that same event right now, I would be asking different questions. Public housing is celebrated in other countries. It should be celebrated here too. There is a physical structure to help those in need live inside our cities. Their jobs are the backbone of many parts of our city. Why shouldn’t their housing also have solar power, wireless access points everywhere, washers and dryers in the basements, split HVAC systems and just feel wonderful? Data has proven that when people live and study in positive feeling environments, the impact is felt.

Why don’t we take city-owned land across the boroughs and build enough buildings to house every person from the old buildings? Engage the community in the conversations about what they want their buildings to be. It should be a community process. Create beautiful, forward-thinking housing where there are parks, social systems built-in, bodegas that carry products the community wants, and carbon-neutral buildings and can produce money with solar power. Then once they are in perfect working order, let every person who currently lives in public housing take a look, so they are thrilled and help them move in. Then take the old buildings and implode them. After that, rebuild more public housing in that space from the ground-up with the same future program.

It wouldn’t cost $40B, the number it takes to fix the buildings at large but $200B. If anyone does the math, they will see quite clearly that the extra $160B will save us money in the long run, and the positive impact of everyone living in those buildings and on our city will be tremendous.

There is a saying when you build projects; cheap is expensive. We have to stop running this country year to year but decades to decades.