“WHERE ARE OUR JOBS?” ASK PUBLIC HOUSING RESIDENTS REQUIRED TO VOLUNTEER

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As the city’s public housing authority gears up to implement new federally mandated community service requirements for many of its residents, tenants and advocates are charging that a decades old federal law meant to provide paying jobs for tenants has been all but ignored.

Under Section 3 of the 1968 Housing and Urban Development Act, companies contracting with public housing authorities must hire low-income community residents “to the greatest extent feasible.” A recent study of New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) contracts claims, however, that the city has done little to enforce this provision. According to Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), the community group that authored the report, nine construction companies working under NYCHA contracts worth about $30 million last year said they planned to hire six local residents at most. “Many of the winning bidders didn’t even fill out the appropriate parts of the form” outlining their hiring plans, said Margaret Hughes, executive director of GOLES.

The Housing Authority refutes these charges. “To date 34 percent of all new construction hires since January 1 were hired from among residents in the developments in which they worked,” Naomi Lara, a deputy general manager at NYCHA, said at a public hearing on the agency’s plan for 2002 in June.

From the contactors’ perspective, however, making these hires is much easier said than done. “It depends on the contract that’s being performed,” said Harris Katsoulas of Northeast Contracting Corporation. Currently under a $746,000 contract with NYCHA to assemble boilers and fitting pipes, Northeast was not able to hire local residents, said Katsoulas, because the work was too specialized and training too costly. “With the competition these days for Housing Authority and city work, you really have to lower your prices,” he said. “It’s very difficult to do the training.”

Some officials are determined to make it work, however. In June, Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez introduced the Housing and Employment Opportunity Act requiring contractors with public housing authorities to fill 30 percent of their jobs with low-income community residents. While the bill’s prospects are unclear–it has only nine sponsors to date–momentum may build as enforcement of community service requirements begins. Under the 1998 Quality Housing Act, public housing residents working less than 30 hours a week–an estimated 60,000 in New York City–must volunteer eight hours a month in and around their housing development. At least two pieces of legislation opposing this provision have been introduced in Congress, and lawsuits are under consideration.

“In 33 years you have not implemented Section 3,” Jahahara Alkebulan-Ma’at, citywide coordinator of Alliance for a Working Economy and the TRADES campaign, a coalition of unions and public housing residents, testified last week before the board of NYCHA at a hearing last week on the agency’s 2002 plan. “Now you’re going at the speed of light to implement the community service requirement.”