Around the five boroughs, the New York City Housing Authority controls 2,500 acres of land. This vast swath includes 180,000 of the City’s federally subsidized housing units, as well as many acres of land simply landscaped or paved for parking. To the cash-strapped NYCHA, some of these “underutilized” spaces are now viewed as assets whose dollar value needs to be realized.

To that end, NYCHA announced last month that private developers have been selected to purchase property and construct or renovate 1,000 units of affordable housing on four public housing sites in the South Bronx. The sale of land at Forest Houses, Highbridge Gardens, Soundview Houses and University Avenue was arranged through a relatively new type of partnership between the Authority and the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). Under this model, HPD and NYCHA work together to create the development proposals. NYCHA then provides the land and nets a profit — in this case, $29 million. The collaboration is touted as mutually beneficial, furthering the mission of both agencies. But some warn that opening the floodgates to development on public housing property may lead to problems if the process isn’t carefully regulated.

HPD is eager to facilitate the development of affordable housing for low- and moderate-income families — 6,000 new units by 2013, according to NYCHA spokesman Howard Marder. That helps to fulfill the commitment of the city’s New Housing Marketplace Plan, which promises 165,000 affordable units by 2013. And NYCHA is all too happy to create a new revenue stream after years of federal de-funding. The cuts have shortchanged NYCHA $611 million since 2001, which has constrained the agency’s ability to maintain its units and provide services. This year it will operate at a $195.3 million deficit. NYCHA’s financial conundrum has forced it to consider raising rents and cutting “non-core services” such as job training and enrichment programs.

While those involved find much to praise in the innovative arrangement, some are raising questions about the process for community review and whether there are enough provisions for involving residents and neighbors. It’s notable that new construction will follow HUD procedures (because the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development oversees housing authorities across the nation) rather than New York City’s comprehensive land use evaluation process.
An August report from the office of Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer pointed to the fact that development on NYCHA land would not be subject to the City’s Unified Land Use Review Process (ULURP) unless “NYCHA or the developer seek additional waivers or public actions.” Marder explained that while NYCHA land is held to the city’s environmental review process, there exists no mandatory participation in ULURP, which typically governs transactions of city-owned land. ULURP mandates a procedure of notification and conduct of public hearings at multiple levels of government, with opportunities for public feedback and approval at each level.

By contrast, the HUD process involves a brief description of the development proposal in a publicized annual plan. This is approved and followed by a documented resident meeting coordinated by the tenant association. HUD is also required to seek feedback on the proposal from the borough’s council of NYCHA tenant association presidents, though no other local governing body is involved. According to Marder, if a conflict arises between residents and NYCHA regarding the plan, it is resolved on a “site specific” basis at the tenant association level. Further, HUD also does not require the participation of non-NYCHA community members — though they may live across the street or next door to the new building in question — as they are not viewed as part of the community under HUD guidelines.

The concern is that without the strictures of the New York City-specific ULURP, the input and oversight that community members have is not enough to provide them with needed information or influence. HUD’s regulations guide local housing authorities throughout the country, meaning the planning process for New York City is the same as in Americus, Georgia. According to Marder, NYCHA is “fully in line with HUD requirements. …Residents of affected NYCHA developments are afforded opportunities through tenant association meetings.”

Still, some question whether residents of affected areas have enough of a voice. The level of information provided is not necessarily the same for each project; it’s “a function of tenant associations” at each site, said Victor Bach, senior housing policy analyst at the Community Service Society. “It’s open to question,” Bach said. The program needs to strengthen resident capacity and sort out the costs and benefits for residents through their active participation, he says.

The top tenant leader citywide has his doubts about the method for redevelopment of properties that are home to tens of thousands of people (5 percent of all New Yorkers are NYCHA residents). “I do not feel comfortable,” said Reginald Bowman, president of the Citywide Council of Tenant Association Presidents. “It is important for NYCHA and HPD to strategically plan for how the land will be utilized. Whatever they do, they have to consult with residents.”

Further, a request for proposals (RFP) through HPD detailing community benefits is not necessarily required by NYCHA regulations. The potential exists for NYCHA to engage in direct transactions with private developers without the mediation of HPD. For the new South Bronx developments, HPD does stipulate in the RFPs that the complexes include community facilities and affordable housing that targets specified income levels, and developers were selected on the basis that they can fulfill these mandates efficiently. But NYCHA personnel have speculated that if NYCHA’s fiscal problems get bad enough, according to Bach, “they may need to sell directly to developers.” That would open NYCHA land to development without HPD guidelines. It remains unclear what such collaboration would look like and whether the same community benefits, such as facilities and affordable housing, would be included.
Dunn Development, a company that’s been building affordable housing for a decade, is slated to complete the project at Highbridge Gardens. President Martin Dunn says a collaborative process between NYCHA, HPD and tenant associations is involved in the creation of the RFP. The developers have, thus far, stayed out of that process and it’s been up to NYCHA to decide what standards developers will abide by. Marder wrote in an e-mail that each site needs to be reviewed on an individual basis to determine “available development opportunities, what the development context is” which can involve many different factors, including “what future NYCHA needs may be.”

“Considering how much land is available on NYCHA property and the housing crisis that the city faces, it’s great. It’s innovative planning,” Dunn said. In addition to his company, the other developers selected for this round are Blue Sea Development at Forest Houses, TNS Development at Soundview Houses, and Arista and Bronx Pro Development firms at University Avenue. This comes on the heels of University Macombs Apartments in the Bronx, the first project completed under this arrangement in 2006.

The four developments announced last month will target renting families with annual incomes of $69,000, and individuals earning $48,300 or less. Ownership opportunities will be offered to families making $99,800, and individuals making $69,000 or less. Although this is significantly higher than the average $22,400 annual income of most NYCHA residents, the income targets provide units considered affordable under HPD guidelines and as directed by Bloomberg’s housing plan. Such developments offer a chance for upwardly mobile public housing residents to remain in the neighborhood, according to HPD press secretary Seth Donlin. Oftentimes residents who are eligible for certain housing subsidies face disqualification if their income increases even slightly. “Mixed income housing preserves choice,” Donlin said.

Recent developments of a similar nature, such as the University Macombs rehabilitation of empty buildings, were also lauded by community members for creating facilities for everyone in the area. Xavier Hernandez, the district manager of Community Board 5, where the new University Avenue project will begin, said of the completed University Macombs project, “It was very appealing to the community. The buildings were amenable and the community was involved.”

Housing analyst Bach remains skeptical about the new NYCHA land sale and reuse process, however. Given NYCHA’s available acreage and the potential to create such a positive impact in the city, it’s possible to conceive of well-developed and well-designed housing, he said, but “we need to ask what we can do to protect” the voice of community members who will be impacted.

– Chris Narducci

City Limits is launching a new series of articles, “The Houses,” about aspects of the New York City Housing Authority. In addition to stories online, the January issue of the print quarterly “City Limits Investigates” will take an in-depth look at NYCHA’s fiscal crisis — its roots in the long-running controversy over public housing, its impact on residents, and the potential long-term effects of debilitating deficits.

This story has been corrected. NYCHA is not considering cutting “senior housing” to ease its deficit. 11/18/08