On a warm July afternoon’s activist-led tour of public housing, among a crowd of passionate residents full of grievances and elected officials with furrowed brows, two people wore poker faces.

Richard Dragos, the superintendent of Grant Houses in Harlem, and Demetrice Gadson, the deputy director of the Manhattan management department of the New York City Housing Authority, were in tow as several dozen residents and members of Community Voices Heard (CVH) narrated a tour for City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Councilmembers Robert Jackson of Harlem and Melissa Mark-Viverito of East Harlem. The point was to show Quinn the poor living conditions suffered by too many at NYCHA’s 178,489 apartments, an opportunity sought by CVH for more than a year.

Caught between residents’ complaints and politicians’ fluctuating levels of support, NYCHA employees – like Dragos, who guides maintenance for all 1,940 apartments at Grant – grapple with the effects of NYCHA’s massive underfunding every day. “The elevators are fixed whenever we get a call,” he maintained stoically outside of 3150 Broadway on July 22. Yet residents hooted at the irony that just as the tour approached that building, the elevator alarm bell rang an alert that someone was stuck.

The chance to show Quinn the outside and inside of Grant, after doing the same at Jefferson Houses in East Harlem, came at a moment of new possibility for NYCHA – the first in a while. The authority is busy spending $423 million of federal stimulus money on “shovel-ready” capital projects around the five boroughs. The funds are intended not only to fill longstanding capital needs, but to put unemployed NYCHA residents to work in the process.

And, in recognition of the need to better fund the authority’s ongoing operating costs as well – addressing the $137 million operating deficit for 2010 – a growing list of elected officials in the State Senate, Assembly and City Council have signed on as supporters of the Save Our Underfunded NYCHA Developments (SOUND) Housing Campaign. They promise to push hard in the next budget rounds for additional millions in investment that officials have chosen to withhold in recent years – $30 million from the city and $64 million from the state. The SOUND campaign, led by Senator Daniel Squadron of Brooklyn and Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh of Manhattan, also asks the city to stop charging NYCHA more than $70 million annually in PILOTs (payments in lieu of taxes) for police and sanitation services.

Indeed, “full funding for public housing in all future budgets” was one of CVH’s top demands of public officials on the tour. That addresses the everyday operating costs of running NYCHA, which have been starved in recent years. The other is creation of an “oversight committee to track projects being funded by stimulus funds.” Those projects come from the capital budget for larger construction projects, for which funding also has declined precipitously.

Making it real

A week after Quinn’s tour, Community Voices Heard co-chairwoman Agnes Rivera pronounced herself gratified. “For me it was really a pleasure. She saw what it really means to live in public housing,” Rivera said. “I just loved every second of it, because it was all facts. The facts were there.”

Facts like: Faulty or missing light fixtures at Jefferson Houses, where a resident recalled, “I almost got electrocuted.” A pipe leaking in the community room at Grant Houses. A corner of a hall ceiling there, where duct tape holds up cardboard holding back another leak, said to be of something fouler than just water. An apartment with a key stuck in the front door lock for more than a week. Complaints are made, time passes, and little happens.
CVH member Veronica Johnson, 39, wrote down some of what she’s faced as a resident of Jefferson Houses for 18 years. “My son cut his foot on a broken tile on my floor many times because NYCHA refused to fix it … I took NYCHA to court and they were ordered to fix my door, and to this day, they still have not fixed it … My refrigerator was out for four months … I’ve had at least three floods.”

“You never know – you might even end up here one day,” Johnson wrote.

Quinn did a lot of listening and looking, and asked questions. Now and then she would summarize her impressions. “I have two public housing projects in my district,” she told City Limits, “but I need to understand the situation more broadly.” She recalled once sitting in a constituent’s apartment at the Elliott-Chelsea Houses with “water pouring down” until a repairman came to fix the leak. “There has to be a way where we are more focused and timely about making repairs,” Quinn said.

After the event, Dragos and Gadson did not comment further. “We continue to partner with Speaker Quinn and other elected officials to find much-needed funding for NYCHA,” spokesman Howard Marder wrote in a statement. “During the recent tour made by the Speaker, NYCHA had a Manhattan Deputy Director present to make sure that we understood the concerns that were being voiced and so that we could begin work to address any issues that were raised.”

Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose East Harlem district encompasses Jefferson and much other public housing, also was there for the whole tour, east and west (a school bus took the group across town from Jefferson to Grant). Councilman Robert Jackson arrived at Grant, in his district. Both councilmembers have signed on to the SOUND campaign; Quinn has not. Some officials may feel torn among competing worthy priorities in a time of budget austerity, while others are simply not major backers of public housing.

Mark-Viverito said last week that the tour “helped contextualize, in [Quinn’s] mind, the severity of the issues. It makes it very real.”

“It’s important that we all play a role in continuing to advocate” for NYCHA’s financial support, she said – supporting, as the SOUND campaign does, CVH’s “ask” for full operating funding. But in regard to the second “ask,” for a special stimulus oversight committee to be formed that would include residents, she agreed with what Quinn told the group: It’s better to work through the existing Council Subcommittee on Public Housing and Committee on Finance.

Councilwoman Rosie Mendez of Manhattan, who chairs that subcommittee, said this week that she also does not see a need for a separate body, since the Citywide Council of Presidents (of residents’ associations) and the Resident Advisory Board already exist. “I know [stimulus] presentations were made to one or both of those boards,” said Mendez, who is also a signatory of SOUND.

She noted that when city agencies in May provided overviews to Council of their plans for spending stimulus money, the housing authority stood out as the best prepared. But oversight of NYCHA’s spending is diffuse and “multilayered,” she said.

Mark-Viverito thinks NYCHA’s future is looking brighter of late because New York City’s own former housing commissioner is President Obama’s housing chief. HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan “understands the importance of public housing,” and is pushing for NYCHA to be fully funded rather than receiving 85 cents for each dollar called for. “I do have confidence that we are going to get resolution with housing in this administration – more resources,” she said.

Local labor

The influx of resources that is stimulus funding has both officials and residents examining not only what projects will be completed, but by whom. When Bloomberg announced in April the selection of shovel-ready projects from NYCHA’s 5-year capital plan, he underlined the effect on jobs: “Stimulus finds will create or preserve 2,399 jobs for New Yorkers; the total funding for these projects will create or preserve 3,255 jobs.”

Public housing advocates are keen on seeing that as many of those jobs as possible go to NYCHA residents. Section 3 of the 1968 Housing Act requires all agencies receiving HUD funds to make a strong effort to train and hire low-income residents. The authority and advocates generally agree that complying with Section 3 is a worthy goal, one that NYCHA hasn’t come close to meeting. “There’s a lack of capacity for any housing authority to do this really well,” says Victor Bach, senior housing policy analyst at the Community Service Society and co-author of a new report on Section 3 and related issues of economic opportunity for public housing residents. “Housing authorities are not job placement or training agencies,” said Bach.
But with more than 20,000 adults looking for work among NYCHA’s roughly half-million residents and stimulus funds ready to be spent, “there is an unusual opportunity for NYCHA to expand its Section 3 efforts and make them more effective,” the report concludes. (The number of unemployed comes from the 2005 Housing and Vacancy Survey; Bach points out that since the recession, the number must be higher. He gives a higher estimate of the total number of NYCHA residents than the 403,000 cited by the authority, because many residents are not listed on the lease.) Its recommendations include a call for the mayor to create an interagency task force on realizing Section 3 – to draw on the greater workforce development capacity of other agencies – and the enactment by Congress of a bill modifying Section 3 called the Earnings and Living Opportunity Act.

NYCHA Chairman John Rhea testified in favor of the Act at a July 20 hearing in New York held by U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity. Rhea’s testimony cited an array of efforts by the authority to train and hire residents, including the Pre-Apprenticeship Training Program that has placed 221 residents in apprenticeships in the building trades. Rhea called Section 3 an unfunded mandate, however, and said stimulus funding “will allow NYCHA to modify and expand our Section 3 efforts thus providing greater opportunity to residents seeking employment.”

Some Community Voices Heard members would say it’s not a moment too soon. In a write-up that was part of the tour packet given to Quinn, Roxanne Reid, the tenant association president at Castle Hill Houses in the Bronx, criticized the way tenant employment is carried out. “We have received money from the stimulus package for green light fixtures that will save energy,” Reid wrote. “I sent them 45 residents who had experience working with the contractors. But instead they brought in their own crew, even though they are supposed to hire residents. They only hired two of the residents I sent to them. Not only that, but they put the wrong light fixtures in the first time, and now they have to pay for contractors to come back and do it over again.”

Sounds like a situation ripe for oversight. So far there’s the NYCStat Stimulus Tracker, an online tool showing the local allocation of funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 in eight major categories; public housing comes under Infrastructure.

Back at the Grant Houses in Harlem, none of the 45 projects using $150 million in stimulus funds allocated thus far are taking place there. But superintendent Richard Dragos says major renovations are needed. It’s hard to keep up in a 21-story building, where a leak patched on one floor just means a new one opening on another floor. As the officials and residents parried in the courtyard, and one resident hounded him for allegedly fixing elevators just before the VIPs appeared, he stated the obvious: “We never have enough staff.”

– Karen Loew

For an in-depth look at the status of public housing in New York City, see the Winter 2009 issue of City Limits investigates, Last Stand.