Tenant Leaders Dispute Their Role in Shaping NYCHA Development Plans

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Green space at Ingersoll Houses, one of three NYCHA developments affected by a proposal for affordable housing that concerns some tenant leaders.

Adi Talwar

Green space at Ingersoll Houses, one of three NYCHA developments affected by a proposal for affordable housing that concerns some tenant leaders.

Early this month, Mayor de Blasio’s NYCHA trod toward a topic that blew up on the Bloomberg administration: the prospect of developing new housing on what some deem is underused land at public housing developments.

The authority was quick to note the differences between its current idea and Mayor Bloomberg’s doomed “infill” proposal of 2013. For one thing, the new plan stresses affordable rather than market-rate housing.

For another, the de Blasio version is “the outcome of an extensive and meaningful planning process with hundreds of residents and community advocates,” the authority says.

But the Tenant Association presidents of the targeted developments say the authority doesn’t seem to have come away from those sessions having heard what residents had to say.

On July 1, NYCHA released the long-awaited Request for Proposals for developers to build 100 percent affordable housing on land at three NYCHA developments—Ingersoll in Fort Greene, Van Dyke in Brownsville and Mill Brook in the Bronx. The development proposal links NYCHA’s NextGeneration plan for dealing with its fiscal crisis to de Blasio’s Housing New York initiative to build 80,000 new units of affordable housing, 10,000 of which are slotted for NYCHA land.

NYCHA says it will retain the rights to the land, which will be developed through long-term ground lease. The authority will also require developers to employ local residents and they will insist on stabilized rents. Proposals are due September 30th.

Some of the worries of TA leaders center on the affordability terms. Anthony Sosa is the Tenant Association president of Ingersoll, a development with 20 buildings and 4,500 residents. “The people here, they want affordable housing,” he says. “But on whose terms is it affordable? What we need is low-income affordable housing,” he adds.

A related concern is the process that was used to generate community input. That approach has garnered some praise. “The community visioning process that NYCHA put in place when it started engaging these residents was miles ahead of the community engagement process in the Bloomberg administration,” says Vic Bach, Senior Housing Policy Analyst at the Community Service Society. “NYCHA did go all out in its attempts to develop community priorities, and part of that agenda was to be able to come out of this with RFPs for affordable housing development.”

The dispute is over whether that process accurately captured how residents feel. At NYCHA’s visioning sessions, participants say, a host of critical issues—like repairs, safety and affordable housing—were dealt with simultaneously, with the residents broken up into separate groups to discuss different topics. That meant that a very small group of participants actually formulated the community response to ideas about affordable housing.

Sosa scoffs at the idea that the RFPs were the “outcome” of the process at Ingersoll. “Most of the seniors don’t even understand what they’re talking about,” he says. “It’s deceitful what they’re doing. If a couple of people say ‘Yes,’ they go with that.”

“They came in here tricking people,” says Lisa Kenner, the Tenant Association president for Van Dyke, a housing development of 22 buildings and over 4,000 residents. For starters, Kenner says, NYCHA representatives didn’t explain to the residents the difference between low-income housing and affordable housing. The new housing developments will be made available to anyone earning an Area Median Income of 60 percent the average or lower, which comes out to just over $50,000 a year for a family of four. But the median household income of a Van Dyke resident is about half that, at $25,774.

Van Dyke residents were misled to believe that they would be moving into the new development, Kenner says. So were the residents of Ingersoll, according to Laura Bruno, the sergeant-at-arms of Ingersoll’s Tenant Association. “They told the seniors down here that they have first preference,” Bruno tells City Limits. And Princella Jameson, the president of the Tenant Association of Mill Brook, also understood from the visioning sessions that her residents would be getting 25 percent of the units built on the Mill Brook plot.

But while NYCHA residents will be given preference for 25 percent of new units built, it’s not clear than any preference can be given to residents of that particular development—meaning local residents could be competing for slots with people from elsewhere in the sprawling public-housing system. NYCHA says some funding streams and fair-housing rules prohibit limiting preferences to very small geographic areas.

“I don’t think it’s fair,” Sosa says. “If you’re going build in our neighborhood, why shouldn’t the senior residents of Ingersoll have first dibs to say if they want to live there or not? They should have that yes or no choice.”

Sosa was unequivocal. “We’re totally against the affordable housing unless it’s 100 percent for us and we have that in ironclad writing,” he told City Limits.

The problem Kenner sees with the new developments being mostly for newcomers is that it means some residents at Van Dyke will live in shiny new structures while their neighbors in existing public-housing buildings struggle with maintenance problems resulting from city, state and federal disinvestment going back more than a decade.

“People are going to come into a brand new building, and we’ve been living here 40, 50, 60 years,” she says. “We got problems with our boilers, with our roofs. If you can’t even paint the apartments or the halls, that’s not right.” She says it sends a very specific message: “The people who live here already, we don’t count.”

She is not alone in this concern. Vic Bach of CSS says that across the board, the highest priority to emerge from the visioning sessions NYCHA held surrounding affordable housing was the chronic lack of repairs in existing NYCHA apartments. Now there are RFPs for housing, but still no sign of the repairs. “For housing development to move ahead without repairs is unfair,” Bach says. “These should happen in tandem.”

Repairs are addressed by the NextGeneration NYCHA plan, which includes methods such as digitization to improve customer service and increase efficiency and localization tactics to empower ground-level decision making.

But unlike the controversial infill plan from the Bloomberg years, which proposed developing market housing on NYCHA lots in Manhattan and was expected to generate much needed revenue that would have gone directly back into NYCHA’s capital repairs, the current de Blasio’s proposal isn’t expected to generate much by way of revenue for NYCHA. (There is a separate plan to develop other sites into 50 percent affordable, fifty percent market rate units).

NYCHA officials have said the de Blasio plan has broader goals: addressing the citywide housing crisis, better connecting NYCHA developments to surrounding neighborhoods and generating at least some money from new developments to improve playgrounds and basketball courts.

But some believe that the sacrifice NYCHA residents are being called to make is too great, such as the loss of open space. Sosa says he is working with Public Advocate Letitia James to try to establish the site targeted for development at Ingersoll, which is adjacent to the St Michael St Edward Church, as a historic landmark. “We’ve got new enough buildings on that street. It’s too much. What is going to be left when they finish building?” asks Bruno. “Can we at least have a little green left?”

Looking around her neighborhood, Kenner says there are plenty of empty lots available for affordable housing—why is NYCHA giving up its land? “The mayor should have come here and looked for himself,” Kenner says. “There’s plenty of empty lots by the train station. They want to give the developers land, and I’m wondering what is [NYCHA] getting out of the deal.”

And Sosa has a separate worry: that the parameters NYCHA has set for the new buildings will change. “Once you have a privately run building on public property, there’s always a conflict there,” he said. “What happens to our seniors if they can’t pay? Do they get kicked out? There’s no guarantee. We’re pushing for a legal document that our seniors will be protected.”

Assemblywoman Latrice Walker, whose district includes Van Dyke, was sympathetic to fears like Sosa’s. “As a former Hope 6 project resident, I understand the reluctance of residents to believe that NYCHA will remain true to its promises,” she wrote in a statement. She promised to work closely with NYCHA to ensure that “the ideals of this program come to fruition and that current NYCHA residents are protected.”

Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, whose district also includes Van Dyke houses, agrees. In a statement, she lauded the Mayor’s efforts to create affordable housing, but insisted that “the respondents to the request must demonstrate an ability and willingness to partner with NYCHA by providing the development with the much needed resources required to assist with the upgrading and maintenance of the living conditions for all residents of the Van Dyke housing complex.”

For NYCHA’s part, a spokesperson reiterates that affordable housing was identified as a priority from the community. “We realize there may be a diversity of opinion among residents on how to achieve more affordable housing, but the RFP puts forth the best thinking and input from the community,” the spokesperson says. “We appreciate resident frustration that this will not generate revenue like 50/50, but this solution is intended to offer more affordable housing options for the community, not to serve as a revenue generating measure.”

But some remain unconvinced. “They always come to the ghetto and want to change everything and keep their neighborhoods the same,” Sosa said. “And that’s wrong.”

City Limits reporting on public housing is supported by the Revson Foundation.