Mayor Bill de Blasio announced this month a new chair for the New York City Housing Authority: Shola Olatoye. She was formerly the vice president and market leader of Enterprise Community Partners, a real estate investment company that specializes in affordable housing.
The appointment could mark a new era for public housing in New York. But when Olatoye takes office in March, she’ll inherit unfinished projects from her predecessors, seen in the beleaguered history of one NYCHA site, Prospect Plaza in Brownsville.
Today, Prospect Plaza is a hollowed shell of what it was – literally. Once a four-building development with 368 apartments, one building was razed a decade ago, while the others have stood empty for years.
The present picture is a far cry from what the early stages of the Prospect Plaza project nearly two decades ago would have indicated. And the details of what’s to finally emerge there are still being worked out.
A redevelopment saga
In 1996, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) gave the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) a $22 million grant from its HOPE IV program to rehabilitate the Prospect Plaza towers. By 2002, the residents had all moved out.
NYCHA had originally awarded the project to the Michaels Development Company in 1999, but fired the development company eight years later. The development company has since sued the housing authority. When asked about the development, a spokeswoman said that the company had no comment.
In 2010, NYCHA announced that the buildings would have to be demolished, stating that renovation was not financially feasible.
Movement finally took place last year. According to its website, NYCHA presented updates about the Prospect Plaza re-development to former residents and to members of the community board. The housing authority also announced that Blue Sea and Partners – a development team including Blue Sea Development Company, Pennrose Properties, Duvernay + Brooks and Rosenberg Housing Group – would develop the property.
“The fact that it even came to fruition was because of pressure,” said Monique George, the director of individual giving and special events at Community Voices Heard, a city-wide organization focused on empowering people who are low-income.
The new development will have 364 housing units, a mixture of townhouses and low-rise apartment buildings.. Only 80 of the apartments will be public housing, compared to the 368 public-housing apartments in the former 12- and 15-story towers.
The other 284 apartments will be affordable housing units. The apartments are intended to be for residents who earn 60 percent of the area median income – $49,800 for a family of four.
That means that the affordable housing units may be far out of reach for many residents of Brownsville, including former residents of the Prospect Plaza towers. According to the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, a research center affiliated with New York University, Brownsville’s median income is $26,984, and 40.5 percent of Brownsville residents have a household income of $18,540 or less.
NYCHA says that former residents will have priority to the 80 public housing units, as well as to 70 non-public housing units. Altogether, those units will make up less than half of the units vacated in the old towers.
According to NYCHA, the re-development is slated to cost $140 million. While $15.5 million will come from the original HUD grant, the remainder is expected to come from other city agencies and private funding.
Spokespeople from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) said that financial negotiations about the affordable units were still ongoing among HPD, the New York City Housing Development Corporation and NYCHA.
Negotiations were supposed to have closed last December, but the deadline has since been moved to June. “NYCHA and the two other agencies couldn’t really coordinate,” Bob Rosenberg, the President of Rosenberg Housing Group, who assembled Prospect Plaza’s development team, said by telephone.
As of February 10, one building was in the process of being demolished. According to the work permit posted outside the property, the demolition was supposed to have finished in January. NYCHA spokeswoman Sheila Steinback said that even though it took longer than anticipated to start demolition, construction should begin this summer, and the subsequent phases have not been delayed. (Stainback left NYCHA last month to join the staff of the Brooklyn district attorney.)
The new development will include a community center with a greenhouse area, retail space intended to house a supermarket and a recreation zone which, with community involvement, will be designed and developed by the Trust for Public Land.
But the prospect of new amenities don’t quite clear up the disappointment that some feel about the Prospect Plaza saga.
“The Prospect Plaza-HOPE VI project was a vision for hope and redevelopment for Ocean-Hill Brownsville,” Reginald Bowman, the East Brooklyn District Chair of the Citywide Council of Presidents, a resident association organization, said. “The tragedy [is] that it has taken so long for that vision to be realized and most of the original residents will never return to their homes.”
There are also concerns about the housing authority’s use of Section 3, a federal law that requires contractors to “hire public housing residents (or other low-income persons when no public housing residents are available or qualified for the position) when contracting with public housing authorities,” according to materials from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
When asked whether Section 3 had been put into effect yet on the project, Steinback said that, because demolition had just begun, it was too early in the process.
Bowman disagreed, saying that federal money was used and that the process has been underway for 10 years.
Victor Bach, senior housing policy analyst for the Community Service Society, City Limits’ parent organization, said that Section 3 is supposed to go into effect as soon as a development has construction contracts. He also said that Section 3 is supposed to be used for any part of the project for which funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development are used. But Bach added that, even though Section 3 has been a federal law since 1968, federal enforcement of the law has been relatively weak.
NYCHA is providing janitorial and construction training as part of its NYCHA Resident Training Academy. It is not clear whether that is being included under Section 3 regulations because it appears to be an ongoing citywide opportunity, though the flyer says that graduates will be connected to employment opportunities.