Public Housing's Private Club

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The news rumbled like a slow train through the city's public housing developments: Roughly $7.6 million promised to residents had effectively disappeared. Outraged tenants and advocates packed a November 18 meeting, spilling out into the hallway and demanding to know what happened.

“I'm incensed,” said Ed Williams, pacing the floor like a preacher in his navy pinstriped suit. Now the president of Everywhere and Now Public Housing Residents Organizing Nationally Together (ENPHRONT), he helped lobby for the funding as a way to empower residents. First allocated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2001, the “resident participation” funds can be spent on anything from newsletters to conferences to policy consultants. “Now that money has gotten here and nobody has benefited from it,” he said. “We need to find out where those federal dollars are!”

Some resident leaders are accusing the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) of siphoning the funds for their own programs. They've even threatened legal action if the money is not returned. But the situation is a bit more complicated.

Nine public housing tenant association leaders, known collectively as the Citywide Council of Presidents (CCOP), make an extraordinary number of decisions on behalf of the city's 420,000 public housing residents. They meet directly with NYCHA officials and help set agency policy. And now the city has authorized them to distribute the resident participation funds–roughly $3.8 million each year.

Tenants outside the power structure have long complained that the group is too small and unaccountable. Most of its members have held office for decades. Their meetings are private, their minutes unpublished.

Despite complaints like these, NYCHA entrusted the CCOP with the money. Now, three years later, an agency spokesperson hints that CCOP leaders botched the deal, slowing down the allocation process so much that HUD was close to rescinding the funds. And all fingers point to one leader in particular.

Gerri Lamb is easily the most powerful woman in public housing. Not only has she run the tenant association at her own development–Castle Hill in the Bronx–since the 1970s, she's chaired the Citywide Council of Presidents since its inception in 1991. She served on Community Board 9 for almost 18 years and was head of the PTA in every school her four children attended. Neighbors say Lamb was the driving force behind a nearly $5 million renovation of Castle Hill's community center, which now boasts cobalt windows and a gleaming basketball court.

Lamb has a day job as executive assistant to State Senator Efrain Gonzalez, but her evenings belong to the community center, where she seems to know every old lady and teenager in sight. They greet her warmly, but also with a hint of deference. A sign in her office reads “Be Still and Know That I Am God,” a scriptural reference that begs another reading.

Hair and body swathed in a matching African print, Lamb wistfully recalls an era when public housing still held uncorrupted promise. When she first moved into Castle Hill on the cusp of 1969, residents were required to attend classes to learn how to properly clean their apartments. They were even tested by a building manager partial to surprise white-glove dust checks. Lamb wasn't offended at the paternalism–quite the opposite. “We knew we had a responsibility not only to our families but to our community,” she says. “I was grateful for the opportunity to live here.”

Now that feeling is dying out, she says. Castle Hill started to deteriorate after litigation allowed tenants to keep dogs, and residents were no longer subject to fines for quality-of-life infractions like littering and trampling on the grass. Inspiring residents to get involved is much harder now, too, she adds. When she first arrived, residents were “strongly encouraged” to join the tenant association. These days it's unusual. “There's a lot of apathy,” she says. “People don't want to get involved because they don't have to.”

Not long ago, the federal government sought to make sure tenants participated more deeply in the management of public housing. In 1998, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development gave individual public housing authorities more decision-making power, it also created a structure through which residents could offer input. NYCHA now develops its annual plans in concert with a Resident Advisory Board (RAB) and holds borough-wide town hall meetings for feedback. “It opens communication, it opens discussion,” explains Howard Marder, spokesperson for the agency. “It gives an opportunity for people to listen to NYCHA in terms of why we might be putting something in the plan and to comment on it. It's very democratic.”

At the moment, 242 of the city's 345 developments have active tenant associations. They send their presidents to district meetings–for all of Manhattan South, for example, or Brooklyn West. Those districts elect chairs, who together form the Citywide Council of Presidents.

When the feds first introduced the Resident Advisory Board concept, the city's nine CCOP chairs assumed they would simply take over. But a fledgling tenant group, the New York City Public Housing Resident Alliance, wasn't having it. Determined to open the process, they pushed NYCHA to expand the RAB to its current 54 members. But the CCOP leaders still dominate the RAB. In fact, they chair every single committee.

Ethel Velez, executive director of the alliance, has tried for years to call attention to what she sees as a dangerously flawed system. Unlike the district chairs, who have NYCHA-sponsored copiers and phone lines, Velez conducts her decidedly grassroots operation from a cramped office in James Weldon Johnson Houses; a sign on the copier demands 25 cents per page.

She points out that tenant activism has a particular urgency right now, as President Bush enters his second term. On November 20, Congress passed an omnibus budget bill that proposed substantial cuts to public housing. Velez doesn't trust the CCOP to spread the word. “We have to educate ourselves,” she says. “If we don't want to lose public housing, we've got to stop being sleeping giants. We've got to hold them accountable.”

Victor Bach, senior housing policy analyst for the Community Service Society of New York, acts as a consultant to the alliance. In a 2002 brief, he suggested that the CCOP is too cozy with NYCHA to be an effective advocate. In 1996, for example, when Congress proposed a raft of antitenant provisions, including mandatory community service, tenancy time limits, and rent increases, the “Council of Presidents remained silent on these issues,” he wrote.

The alliance was born at roughly the same time out of a perceived need to disseminate information that would enable residents to stand up to NYCHA and HUD. Its members hoped the “resident participation funds”–set at $25 per unit–would help them do just that.

In Eastern Tennessee, residents used the funding to hold a two-day training conference, which residents in other communities used their funds to attend. In Massachusetts, different developments used it as needed: to pay for office equipment, or transportation, or the fees to incorporate as a nonprofit.

But here in New York, the money has been MIA for years. At the November alliance meeting, residents blasted the distribution process–and the CCOP leaders who helped design it. If the funding was supposedly theirs to spend, they asked, why hadn't they gotten any of it?

Several tenant association presidents say Gerri Lamb personally lobbied other chairs to sign over money to the CCOP. “She was going around swaying the COP presidents,” says Vernell Robinson, president of Carlton Manor in Far Rockaway, who has tried to keep her development's funding separate. “They never gave us any indication of what's going on.”

Erik Crawford, president of Davidson Houses in the Bronx, put in a proposal requesting approximately $10,000 over two years to run a computer-training program. But, months later, he's still waiting for CCOP approval. “We need to target our local HUD office,” he said at the meeting. “Right now Miss Gerri Lamb has authority to do whatever she wants.”

Victor Gonzalez, president of Wise Towers on the Upper West Side, says he's tried to confront her directly. “I called Gerri Lamb seven times and she never got back to me,” he said. “I gave her my e-mail, my home number, my voice mail.” Lamb says she never got a message.

The November meeting culminated in a rousing speech by ENPHRONT's Ed Williams. “If someone you elected goes to the table and makes a decision you disagree with, you've got nobody to blame but yourself,” he said. “If we're talking about someone who's monopolizing things, one individual, we have to stop reelecting them.”

Election or no election, the money may be gone. In 2002, the Housing Authority signed a revised memorandum of understanding with the CCOP on how it was to be spent. Then, according to Lamb, they created a panel comprised of five CCOP members and four NYCHA employees, who would choose an organization to administer the funds.

But, after a bid was selected, Lamb raised questions about the search. She felt that NYCHA had somehow pushed through its favorite: the Arete Corporation, which already monitors tenant council elections. She called Ruben Franco, a former NYCHA chair who now serves as attorney for the CCOP. He notified NYCHA's inspector general, and another search ensued. Now, with those bids in, Lamb has asked a different organization, the National Association of African Americans in Housing, to monitor the process.

All the back-and-forth has kept the money mired for years. In the meantime, Lamb and her fellow chairs recently learned, NYCHA took the liberty of spending it.

“Because we faced the risk of HUD reclaiming unused funds if not used within a specific time frame, 2001 and 2002 were used for resident participation eligible activities,” wrote agency spokesperson Marder in an e-mail to City Limits. These included buses, stenographers, rental space and stipends for RAB events. Funds for 2003 and 2004 remain available.

That's not good enough for Lamb, who says she feels betrayed by the agency. “I was livid, and the council was livid,” she says. “We spent the last 10 years in what we believed to be partnership with NYCHA. Now we don't know what to expect from them.” (HUD spokesperson Donna White says there was no time limit placed on the funds.)

Rather than rally their constituents, however, the CCOP is saving face, meeting privately with NYCHA and demanding that the money be restored. That doesn't make sense to Velez. “If they were having a problem with NYCHA, why didn't they hold meetings and start yelling and screaming about this? Everybody knows there's a problem. You'd think they'd want everyone to help them scream.”

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