Intense NYCHA Engagement Effort Could Soften Infill Opposition

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Scenes from the Wyckoff engagement effort.


Scenes from the Wyckoff engagement effort.

NYCHA’s “NextGen Neighborhoods” plan has been controversial from the get-go. The initiative involves leasing land to developers to build a mix of affordable and market-rate housing on land that the authority deems “underutilized.” This spring, NYCHA selected developers to build below-market rate housing at three sites in the Brooklyn and Bronx, and the authority has been engaging with residents at two sites targeted for a 50/50 split of market-rate and affordable housing. Yet many public housing residents object to infill development, fearing overcrowding, the dangers of construction, and an influx of wealthier residents who will cause gentrification in their neighborhoods.

The housing authority, however, has recently made some progress—if limited—at addressing some residents’ concerns about the initiative. At Wyckoff Gardens in Gowanus, one of the first two public housing developments targeted for a 50/50 split, some residents and advocates are working with NYCHA to craft a list of principles that will guide the development process. By the end of this month, the authority will release that list to the public, along with a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a developer.

“We’ve come to agreements on certain things but not everything,” says Beverly Corbin, a Wyckoff Gardens resident who has been involved in negotiations. She said that while on the one hand she still opposes infill development and fears its effects on the surrounding neighborhood, on the other, she recognizes NYCHA’s dire economic circumstances. “This is the one way NYCHA feels it can make its money,” she says.

Tenant association president Valerie Bell and vice president Marilyn Carter said they could not comment because negotiations are still ongoing.

In a statement sent to City Limits, NYCHA emphasized that residents’ feedback will greatly impact the shape of future development.

“NYCHA has held 40 meetings and conducted floor-by-floor outreach with residents from Holmes Towers and Wyckoff Gardens since fall 2015. Their input has helped inform the character of the mix of programs and uses at the sites, the pros and cons of building locations…possible improvements to the sites…[and will] guide NYCHA in determining priorities for capital repairs in their buildings, which will occur concurrently with new construction,” NYCHA wrote.

NYCHA originally planned to release its RFP in April. As reported by City Limits, residents and advocates complained they had been told the RFP would not be released until August and that the authority was cutting short time for resident engagement. NYCHA claimed it had always said the RFP would be released by April, and that deferring the timeline would interfere with its goal to create 6,000 to 7,000 new units within ten years.

In subsequent meetings with residents, however, the authority agreed to postpone the release of the RFP until June to allow for greater resident and community input. During that time, Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE), a program under the Fifth Avenue Committee, hosted workshops where a group of about 30 Wyckoff residents crafted a list of their priorities for the development project. Four residents along with FUREE advocates presented that list to the authority earlier this month, and are now engaged in a point-by-point discussion of residents’ demands with NYCHA staff. The final results of that discussion will be memorialized in the document of guiding principles.

“I’m feeling cautiously optimistic,” says FUREE organizer Shatia Strother. “I think that they’ve finally realized that we are not going away, and that we are not going to stop pushing, and that it serves everybody’s best interests…to cooperate and figure out the best way to move forward instead of trying to barrel through this process and deal with the backlash afterward.”

The guiding document, Strother said, will include details about the responsibilities of the stakeholder committee, an advisory group that will work with the selected developers to represent resident and community interests. The authority began soliciting applications for the committee in April and announced the participants last Thursday.

At Wyckoff, that committee will include 13 residents, Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, Councilman Stephen Levin, State Assemblywoman Jo-Ann Simon, the community board district manager, and advocates from FUREE, the Fifth Avenue Committee, and House of the Lord Church; the Holmes committee includes eight residents, advocates from the local community and day care centers, State Senator* Liz Krueger, State Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez, and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.

Residents have long fought for a large role for that committee, in particular that it will participate in the selection of a developer from among applications submitted in response to the RFP. In recent negotiations, NYCHA has agreed that the committee will be able to review the developers’ applications (with developers’ names and other identifying information redacted), and provide NYCHA with input, though the committee will not have the final say in selecting the developer.

The document will also include a list of ways that NYCHA intends to improve its resident engagement efforts, including working with the steering committee to decide a schedule for meetings, offering printed copies of presentations, and providing written documentation of all agreements reached, Strother said.

Last but not least, the document will include discussion of a variety of other topics raised by residents in their list of demands: how NYCHA will ensure local training and hiring in the development, how the developer will report on outcomes such as local employment and financing, recommendations for the design of the buildings and the type of commercial space, and how the authority will use revenues generated from the development to address repair needs in existing buildings.

As of press time, it was unclear whether the parties would reach an agreement on the exact income-levels that the new affordable units would serve in the new developments, which the housing authority has previously said should be decided through the developer-selection process.

The housing authority says that the document of principles will guide the development process not only at Wyckoff, but at Holmes and future sites targeted for development.

Charlene Nimmons, a Wyckoff resident and former tenant association president who has not been involved in recent negotiations, said she hopes the RFP will reflect some of the demands that she and others have voiced in NYCHA’s visioning meetings throughout the year, such as that NYCHA should set aside some of the leftover revenues in an escrow account to address Wyckoff’s future repair needs, among other demands. Yet she said that she ultimately still opposes infill development.

“It’s not that people are saying that they want this to happen. It’s just making sure that we’re part of the process so that if it goes through we’re not just left figuring out what to do,” she says. Instead of pushing infill development, Nimmons argues, the state and city should each invest $1 billion each year in NYCHA’s capital repairs. “I just don’t understand why they can’t reinvest in public housing,” she says.

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City Limits’ reporting on housing policy is supported by the New York Community Trust and the Charles H. Revson Foundation.

*The original version of this story erroneously identified Krueger as a member of the Assembly.

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