Tenants Balance Skepticism, Realism on Plan to Save NYCHA Site

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Lolita Miller, treasurer of the Tenants Association at Ocean Bay, asks a question at Tuesday's meeting on the RAD program soon to be implemented there.

Adi Talwar

Lolita Miller, treasurer of the Tenants Association at Ocean Bay, asks a question at Tuesday's meeting on the RAD program soon to be implemented there.

Nearly every month since last year, NYCHA officials have been holding information workshops for residents at Ocean Bay Apartments, a 24-building public housing complex in the Far Rockaways that is the site of the city’s first Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) project.

Under RAD, the complex will be converted from public housing to a development with a Section 8 project-based voucher contract. The city says the conversion will allow NYCHA to access a more secure federal funding stream and to leverage private financing from the sale of tax credits. Yet many residents at the most recent information session, on Tuesday night, were not on board with the plan.

“One way or the other, you want to kick us out,” said resident Juan Acencio. “I sometimes feel like you’re pushing me in a dictatorship type way….You haven’t been concerned with the people who don’t want to participate in this program.”

Much confusion centered around the “Choice Mobility” option that allows residents who have lived in a RAD project for 12 months to apply for a voucher to move elsewhere. Acencio and others mistook this option as a mandate to leave their buildings, or mistakenly feared the conversion would lead to large rent hikes. NYCHA officials and other supporters of the pilot program insist that RAD offers plenty of protections to residents and is one of the only solutions available to get financing to decrepit public housing.

“We’re all fearful of that which is unknown to us,” says Councilman Ritchie Torres, chair of the Council’s public housing committee and an enthusiastic supporter of the pilot program. “For me, it’s a no-brainer. RAD is a fancy word but it’s a means of accessing federal resources.”

While many residents may simply need reassurance of the facts, some housing advocates say it’s vital that tenants and their allies remain vigilant: The devil is in the details of implementation.

“The RAD program has the potential to address the chronic underfunding that has plagued public housing units nationwide for decades,” writes Jessica Cassella, a fellow at the National Housing Law Project (NHLP), in an e-mail to City Limits. “In order to meet this lofty goal, however, it is essential that public-housing authorities and housing developers collaborate in a meaningful way before and after RAD conversions with tenants and advocates to address the community’s most pressing housing needs and secure long-term enforceable tenant rights.”

A role for tenants

RAD may have detailed rules, but it also allows for “regional flexibility,” writes Rachel Cohen in the American Prospect, which means a city’s residents have a role to play, providing guidance to their local housing authority. In cities across the country where housing agencies are implementing RAD, advocates and tenants are stepping up to ensure RAD is implemented successfully. In San Francisco, Mayor Ed Lee and advocates have formed working groups to determine the details of the program’s implementation. In Baltimore, advocates have secured additional tenant rights in RAD developments through consent decrees in court.

As NYC introduces its first RAD project this year, while promising more to come, tenants and housing advocates are beginning to organize. “There are issues with RAD of resident rights and protections,” says Victor Bach of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS). With guidance from the National Housing Law Project and Enterprise Community Partners, CSS [a City Limits funder] is holding working groups with NYCHA tenants and housing advocates to create principles to guide NYCHA’s implementation of RAD at Ocean Bay and other future sites.

RAD, on its own, provides many protections for tenants, and NYCHA’s monthly meetings at Ocean Bay help residents understand these rights. Unlike in some previous federal programs, RAD guards against displacement. Developers are required to provide a one-for-one replacement of any units demolished during renovations, and they are prohibited from instituting stricter eligibility rules to bar former residents from returning. RAD also provides far more protections than the typical project-based Section 8 program: Tenants are entitled to the same procedures regarding grievances (resident disputes with the housing authority) the same succession rights, and the right to form tenant associations and access public tenant participation activity funds as residents of public housing.

The program also ensures deep and lasting affordability. Tenants are required to pay no more than 30 percent of their income on rent, and though the contract with the private developer lasts 20 years, both HUD and the developer are required to continue renewing the contract in perpetuity. In addition, the housing authority must retain a permanent interest in the property.

According to a guidebook by NHLP, one of advocates’ main roles should be ensuring that housing authorities and developers abide the rules of the RAD program to the tee. In some other cities, housing authorities have tried, illegally, to rescreen tenants for eligibility; Chicago advocates helped to draft the “Keeping the Promise Ordinance,” which explicitly prohibits rescreening of tenants.

The RAD program also contains some loopholes that could endanger continued affordability. If there are units that have been empty for two years at the time of application for RAD, the housing authority and developer can demolish them without replacement. The NHLP recommends that advocates work to ensure the housing authority loses as few units as possible. In addition, there are some circumstances (such as a lack of federal funding, or the developer’s breach of the contract) in which HUD may terminate the project-based Section 8 contract. Advocates and tenants should work with a housing authority to determine what would happen in the case of such an emergency, Cassella says.

Tenant advocates can also take the conversion to RAD as an opportunity to create even more rights for tenants, beyond those provided for public-housing residents. In San Francisco, for instance, tenants frustrated with the public-housing grievance procedure used the RAD conversion to demand new policies.

More transparency needed

Some advocates and residents say they are optimistic so far about NYCHA’s rollout of RAD. Bach and Ocean Bay resident Lydia Parks praised NYCHA’s efforts to inform tenants about the conversion. “They’ve been trying their best to inform as many people as possible,” said Parks, who said meeting notices were slipped under doors and posted in her building’s entrances and elevators. “Even our housing coordinator told us.”

Cassella praised NYCHA for promising that no units will be lost because of the RAD conversion. Furthermore, NYCHA has indicated in its Request for Proposals (RFP) that it will retain control of the property using a 65-year ground lease, a good way to ensure long-term affordability and tenant protections. Other RAD jurisdictions nationwide have also used ground leases to ensure long-term affordability, such as a 99-year ground lease in San Francisco.

But while the NHLP argues that housing authorities should make crucial RAD documents accessible to the public and even invite tenant participation in choosing among developer applications, NYCHA has not been as transparent as it could be. Neither the application to HUD for the RAD program nor the full Request for Proposal (RFP) for developers are accessible from NYCHA’s RAD web page. The RFP is only accessible to those who create an iSupplier account, which requires a company name and a taxpayer ID.

“As a resident for 49 years, I think that we should have the RFP stapled down here….so people can come and read it,” said Lolita Miller, treasurer of the Ocean Bay Tenant Association, at the information session on Tuesday.

This spring, as NYCHA sifts through developer applications, tenants and advocates will begin developing a clear role to shape the future of the city’s RAD conversions. Yet Councilman Torres says that while it’s always healthy to be “skeptical of government,” advocates and residents should not lose site of the bigger picture.

“There is no nefarious plot here to displace residents from their homes or deprive them of their rights,” Torres says. “RAD is an attempt to improve their living conditions. Skepticism is one thing, paranoia is something else.”