The Devil in the Details

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At a series of nine fractious public meetings in late October, New York City Housing Authority brass explained to tenants exactly how the nebulous language in their new federally mandated “one-year plan” would translate into rents, bricks and waiting lists. Initially, the Authority had tried to get away with just one public hearing in late September, but about twice as many tenants–with a lot of angry questions–showed up as could fit in the auditorium. Since then, the Authority has backed down somewhat, and chair John Martinez apologized for the planning process. “Why weren’t people more involved?” he mused. “Because the Housing Authority made a mistake.”

One problem is that NYCHA’s blueprints are temporary; its “five year plan” is just a vague “mission statement,” as General Manager Paul Graziano put it. The promises and guarantees that NYCHA made in October are only good through next year; after that, tenants’ biggest fears–demolition, privatization, income-mixing, changes in the rent structures–will again be on the table.

Here is a summary of the major sticking points:

What the Authority is proposing: In response to a federal decree that very poor tenants be more evenly distributed throughout its projects (it’s called “deconcentration”), NYCHA letting working families cut in on the 120,000-family waiting list and steering them toward the 41 poorest buildings. Citywide, for half of the apartments that become vacant, working families now get preference. But 40 percent of newly vacant apartments will still be reserved for those who make less than $14,400 for a family of three.

What worries tenants: At the hearings, a lot of tenants said they were happy to have more working neighbors. But nobody thought it was fair that the poorest should have to wait longer for housing, when more than 80 percent of the people on waiting lists are very poor, and as many as 100,000 NYCHA tenants live doubled up. And they’re mad that poor tenants won’t move into richer buildings as richer tenants get moved into the poor ones.

Any movement: The Authority already dropped a plan to offer working families an extra-bedroom bonus. As for the idea of moving poor families up into better buildings, Martinez told tenants that he’d be “happy to talk to his staff” about it. But don’t expect NYCHA to start opening up lots more apartments to the poor: As reps kept reminding tenants, the Authority has $7 billion in unmet capital needs. One of its highest priorities right now is finding new ways to replace dwindling federal subsidies.

What the Authority is proposing: “Mixed-Finance,” 40-year contracts to put NYCHA money behind new developments that blend public housing and market rate apartments, and “Master Lease,” 20-year rental contracts that would bring more private money into development and rehabilitation.

What worries tenants: This opens the door to outright privatization and sales. Another question, as State Senator Tom Duane asked at one hearing, is what will protect the tenants after the contracts are up?

Any movement: No. NYCHA’s Graziano replied to Duane: “These programs are evolving.” But the Authority did promise not to get involved in any direct privatization–the plan at the Lower East Side’s Baruch Houses only has private investors building new units on vacant land.

What the Authority is proposing: Flat rents. Well, sort of. The feds have interpreted the housing reform law as requiring NYCHA to offer flat rents based on market values, but city reps kicked up a fuss with the feds on this. NYCHA has most-favored-Authority status with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, so it usually gets its way. In this case, it did: Rents will continue to be calculated the same way they are now: 30 percent of income, up to a ceiling rent between $347 and $693. Temporarily, rents can be reduced to $25 a month for families that lose their job or welfare benefits.

What worries tenants: Rent hikes, of course.

Any movement: There won’t be any changes this year in rent structures, and Martinez promised that they are “willing to talk about a minimum rent that starts at $0.” But again, that will be up for revision next year.

What the Authority is proposing: Minor demolition projects in the Bronx that would remove a total of 42 apartments and one major demolition project in Brooklyn.

What worries tenants: That this is the beginning of the end, as NYCHA starts tearing down many more of its buildings.

Any movement: The Bronx projects are on hold, and NYCHA heads have pledged not to start new demolitions–not this year, anyway.

What the Authority is proposing: It has already turned the 12-member public housing tenant board–the “Interim Council of Presidents”–into the permanent official voice for tenants.

What worries tenants: Under the housing reform law, tenants are supposed to get a stronger and better-recognized voice. Many tenants say ICOP is unaccountable to tenants and a patsy of the Authority. They’d like a new board, with staff and resources to contact tenants.

Any movement: Martinez, admitting that ICOP may have had “incomplete information” in the past, pledged to expand the board next year, but hasn’t specified by how much–“It should be at least 20,” he said–or how the elections will take place.