The members of the Tenant Association of Reid Houses are angry. “This used to be a beautiful building,” says Ruby Johnson, the acting vice president of the Tenant Association, who has lived in the public housing senior residence on the border of Crown Heights and Lefferts Gardens for 20 years.
But over the years things have changed. Strangers come and sleep in the building, says Ada Thomas, the Tenant Association president. There are no security cameras, which Thomas says are desperately needed. There are young couples subletting from family members, and one has a domestic violence problem. The manager is never around. “He was on vacation, now his wife is sick,” Thomas says. “And the assistant manager knows nothing.” Thomas had other complaints, too. Requests for work orders go unfilled. One gentleman has been living without a refrigerator for weeks. There are gas leaks. There’s no maintenance. There’s a pervasive smell of marijuana. The building is continuously covered in scaffolding.
These are common complaints heard by anyone who asks public housing residents about their living conditions, including New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA) new Chair, Shola Olatoye, whose frequent and much-lauded efforts to engage tenants frequently culminate in outbursts from angry residents who feel ignored, or mistreated. The problems stem in part from the failing capital infrastructure of NYCHA’s buildings. It’s no secret that NYCHA is in dire straits, with its $77 million budget deficit and $18 billion in capital maintenance costs. Federal and state government have been slowly but steadily reducing funding to public housing over the years. What’s worse, the capital infrastructure deteriorates with every passing year, further endangering the housing stock and the future of New York City’s public housing.
The fiscal emergency facing NYCHA is no longer a surprise. But taking a step back, the politics behind it are puzzling. With more than 400,000 residents living in the authority’s buildings, the public housing population is the size of a major city. The clout such a large population could have is potentially enormous. In political circles, NYCHA is often referred to as a “sleeping giant” for the kind of political influence it could wield … but doesn’t.
NYCHA even has its own civic infrastructure. It takes the form of Tenant Associations (TAs), democratically elected organizations meant to help residents engage with NYCHA and get their needs met more efficiently. The associations are meant to operate as a network. Each of the Tenant Associations from NYCHA’s 334 developments belong to one of nine districts, and the presidents within each district elect a president to represent them in the Citywide Council of Presidents (CCOP). Members of CCOP become members on NYCHA’s Resident Advisory Board (RAB), who are meant to “express concerns, make recommendations and advise NYCHA management in the formulation of the Agency Plans.”
The problem is, NYCHA’s civic infrastructure is failing its residents at every level.
Only roughly a third of developments have a TA at all, and in interviews with City Limits, TA presidents complained repeatedly of a chronic lack of training. Millions of dollars of funds meant to support resident participation go unspent, and there is sometimes a disconnect between the TA leadership and the tenants they represent, advocates say. CCOP, the residents’ leadership committee, lacks the profile it should have given the number of New Yorkers it represents.
And while some of these issues can be blamed on NYCHA’s fiscal crisis or uneven talent at the head of TAs, NYCHA has done little to address the problem.
“The system is simply not working,” says Vic Bach, the senior housing policy analyst at the Community Service Society (CSS). “To some extent, the way it works is disgraceful.” Of all the different tenant housing coalitions throughout the city with which CSS is involved, NYCHA—the most beleaguered, with its crumbling infrastructure and its residents constantly in desperate need for repairs —is the most quiescent. “I’m constantly dismayed by the silence,” Bach says, “the lack of a real voice on the part of public housing residents speaking for themselves.”
The silence has had consequences. “The disinvestment that we’ve seen from public housing at every level of government is partly a function of civic disengagement,” says Councilmember Ritchie Torres, who chairs the Committee on Public Housing. “I think part of ensuring that public housing receives its fair share of the city, state and federal budget, should include an effort to build a civic infrastructure, and organize residents to be their best advocates.”
Little training, secret resources
Thomas, the Reid Houses TA president, is a cheerful woman of 70 who talks with a deep rasp and walks with a walker for her chronic arthritis. Thomas decided to run for TA president a few years ago. “I just felt I wanted to help people,” she told City Limits in February at Reid Houses. “‘Let me see what I could do to help. And I’ll be helping myself too!'”
Thomas says she didn’t get any training or any information about what resources she had access to as president. The outgoing TA president didn’t offer any information, and NYCHA didn’t provide any orientation. Her plight was typical of the nine TA presidents City Limits interviewed who ran for the leadership position for idealistic reasons, only to be flummoxed once elected, with no understanding about what resources they had at their disposal to help improve the lives of their tenants.
One of those resources is the Tenant Participation Fund (TPA): $3 million that HUD gives NYCHA every year to be spent on resident engagement activities. But the funds go largely unspent, and a whopping $13 million has accrued over the years, despite the urgent needs of residents.
Thomas found out about the TPA funds by accident, a year after being elected. TA president Lisa Kenner of Van Dyke I Houses in Brownsville says she went seven years before she realized she had access to TPA funds. Another TA president City Limits spoke to had no idea what the TPA fund was.
At a hearing on June 3 of last year, Councilmember Helen Rosenthal asked NYCHA Chair Olatoye for an accounting of TPA funds. “I’m constantly hearing from my TA presidents that they’re not getting their fair share of TPA funds,” the councilmember said, according to minutes from the hearing. “They’ve done the math for their buildings and the money they get back is not equivalent to what they’re putting in. So I’d love an accounting of that.” Olatoye promised to provide an audit of the TPA funds, but as of this writing, Rosenthal has not received it.
Hard to engage tenants
Another problem Thomas has encountered while trying to serve Reid Houses was chronic resident disengagement. She struggles to get residents involved, or to turn out to the monthly TA meetings. Only 25 or so show up in a development that houses an estimated 230 people. In trying to educate her residents, Thomas printed up flyers with tenants’ rights on them and gave them out. “I don’t think anyone even read them,” she said, shaking her head.
Her frustration is common. “One of the hardest challenges for some reason, not just in New York City but across the United States, is getting residents involved,” says John Johnson, TA president of Mott Haven and CCOP South Bronx District Chair.
Well-respected by community leaders and organizers, Johnson confesses to finding resident disengagement confusing. “It just befuddles me,” he says. “If you have 40 people at your meeting, you are doing excellent. There are 2,500 residents at Mott Haven. If we can get 40 people out, that’s a huge, huge accomplishment.” He says that the residents want the TA to do everything. “We often tell them, ‘We can do but so much, but we need your involvement. If we get that, together, we can move mountains. But if we’re standing there alone, we’re not going to be able to get so many things done.'” To get residents out, he sometimes resorts to “creative measures,” such as telling residents that NYCHA is going to sell the development.
Asked why he thinks residents are so disengaged, he answers: “Part of it is definitely, they don’t feel trusted. They don’t feel respected.”
The lack of engagement could reflect a big divide between NYCHA’s resident leadership and the residents more generally, especially younger residents, says Shelevya Pearson. “There’s such a gap between the older leaders and the younger,” she told me at the Seth Low Houses in Brownsville. “We have no idea what it’s about—what this process is all about, what [TA] means to your neighborhood and to political power and so forth. It wasn’t taught. It felt like a secret society. The majority in our generation are gonna be like, what? All they think is that these people go to Atlantic City and do frivolous things.”
Distrust of outsiders?
There are organizations at the ready who would be happy to step in and assist TA presidents engage their residents, and yet historically, the Authority has failed to take advantage of these resources. But TA presidents, too, can be unwilling to partner with organizations that could help them engage residents. “They are suspicious of outsiders,” Bach of CSS says. He told me of a recent incident in which he reached out to a TA president to see if they had the resources they needed to engage with NYCHA. “She would hardly speak to me,” he says. “She was very reluctant to talk to anyone from outside, even as there were committee hearings coming up. And I think that’s typical. There is within the resident culture the belief that the universe is NYCHA, and NYCHA is to blame for everything that goes wrong and NYCHA is to praise for everything that seems to be happening that’s praise-worthy.”
Bach isn’t the only one worried about how well TAs are performing in what is already an unfair fight against government disinvestment. “To be honest, some of the TA presidents have become gatekeepers: ‘This is my development, I know best,'” says Monique “Mo” George, director of the New York City chapter organizing of Community Voices Heard (CVH), a low-income advocacy group. “And that attitude has worked against them.”
The average TA president tends to be a senior, George says. And people tend to hold on to the position. “Sometimes I go to these tenant meetings and it’s like Grandma and her homegirls making the decisions,” George says. “And bless their heart, they want to do good things, but what they have to learn is how to extend beyond themselves and how to be able to reach out and say, ‘I need help, could you come in and assist me to organize.'”
But NYCHA’s reluctance to partner with outside organizers seems to have shifted with Olatoye’s new administration. While pursuing Next Generation NYCHA, the administration’s plan for NYCHA’s future which is to be unveiled in May, the Housing Authority partnered with CVH to develop a resident agenda in three developments in advance of meetings with NYCHA. In one development, 700 residents showed up over three days for the meetings, Mo George reported, thanks to the work of CVH, whose organizers knocked on 1,100 doors and convinced residents to show up.
Even more recently, with help from CVH and George, 700 NYCHA residents marched on Albany, using TPA funds and money raised by CVH to pay for the buses. The event was an overwhelming success: The state budget ended up including $100 million in funding for NYCHA.
But there’s been another reason outside organizing hasn’t been pursued to help NYCHA residents realize their political potential: the Citywide Council of Presidents has not been especially receptive to outside organizers in the past. The first time City Limits spoke to CCOP President Reginald H. Bowman for this article, he opposed bringing in outside organizers. “We organize ourselves,” Bowman, a handsome man in his early 60s, told City Limits in January at Seth Low Houses in Brownsville. “Underneath these advocacy groups, we’ve seen the decline of public housing, so what did they accomplish? We’re organizing ourselves. We will accept help from people, but that’s like when you live in any neighborhood and you have a civic organization in the neighborhood, you don’t hire someone from outside to speak for your interests. You speak for yourself.” Interviewed again in April, after the success of NYCHA’s march on Albany, Bowman was more open to the idea; indeed, a shift in policy seems to have taken hold. CCOP has recently resolved to collaborate with CSS and CVH, and has set up a partnership with Legal Aid. “There has been a consistent strategic effort to organize residents that is going to change public housing,” Bowman said. “Steps are being taken, progress is being made. That happened because resident leaders are putting pressure on elected officials.”
Some success stories
No one could argue that the TA presidents are to blame for their or NYCHA’s woes. The fact is, they have been given very little to work with. And despite those challenges, NYCHA has some very effective tenant leaders, like Kenner, who regularly attracts political star-power to the Van Dyke Senior Center, and Johnson, the CCOP member from Mott Haven.
Johnson, who grew up in NYCHA, has deep-set brown eyes and a quiet, steady manner about him. He says his appetite for activism was inherited: His father did a lot of community outreach, as did his mother until she died when he was 12. Johnson has been leading his development for 13 years; he was just reelected to his third term as TA president, before which he served as vice president.
Johnson’s TA office at Mott Haven is a cluttered and well-equipped room with a computer and video monitors of security footage. Johnson, who doesn’t work outside his TA duties, says he puts in between 60 and 80 hours a week as TA president, an unpaid position, during which time he responds to residents’ needs, including making phone calls throughout the winter when the heat and hot water invariably goes out, or trying to cajole those who can help with repairs long overdue.
“When you’re able to help a resident like that, whose repairs have slipped through the cracks for two years, and you see the satisfaction in that resident’s face, it gives you satisfaction,” Johnson said.
Another perk of the job is travel. Johnson and his fellow leaders travel across the country, learning the policies and procedures of public housing and meeting elected officials, “trying to advocate for public housing throughout the United States.” But this travel has yielded little by way of federal or state funding, again raising the question of how this vast population could get more influence politically.
Johnson has wielded local clout more directly. He has been a member of his community board for 12 years. And he has sustained good relations with his city councilmembers, so much so that after a spate of robberies targeting senior women in his development, he recently snagged a grant to set up surveillance cameras long before it was NYCHA policy. He turned his office into a free wifi hotspot, and connected the cameras to a feed that any resident can access on their phones. Parents can now watch their kids go to school. Women coming home from work can check that no one is lingering in the lobby. Johnson’s cameras also caught a young couple being harassed by police, and the footage—showed in court—brought the couple a settlement from the city.
Other TAs have scored even bigger wins, like when the Bloomberg administration pursued what came to be known as the “infill” plan—an attempt to lease NYCHA land in Manhattan to private developers. Several of the sites were on the Lower East Side, and the idea triggered a powerful and organized response from public housing residents, rallied by their TAs and organizations like Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES).
Jonathan Gardenhire is vice president of Smith Houses TA. At twenty-two, and has been VP for the past four yeas. His mother was part of the first tenant patrol group in Smith Houses in the mid 1970s.Then she became a youth patrol leader. His mother and Smith Houses TA president Aixa Torres worked together PS126, the neighborhood school. Gardenhire grew up going to protests and rallies with the two women. A bright-eyed young man with a stylish, a-symmetrical haircut, Gardenhire studied photography at Parsons and now works as an archivist at a gallery on the Bowery, where he walks from Smith Houses every day. During Hurricane Sandy, Gardenhire used social media like Facebook and Twitter to organize his residents and create a desperately needed flow of information. He did the same thing when NYCHA proposed the infill plan two years ago.
“It was nerve-wracking,” he says of the infill experience. Though he understands that there is a chronic lack of affordable housing in New York City, seeing his home under attack was upsetting. “This is our space,” he says. “We deserve the same rights as everyone else.”
In addition to organizing and putting a stop to infill, Smith Houses filed suit against NYCHA for maintenance issues and won. And they used TPA funds to hire legal counsel, Gardenhire says.
But the Lower East Side is unique in its level of political organization and its power to engage residents. First of all, there are housing organizations to support NYCHA TAs throughout the Lower East Side, which has long been targeted by real-estate developers due to its desirable waterfront location. And the Lower East Side’s TA leadership is itself very strong, particularly Torres.
“There’s a lot of power in the Lower East Side,” said Mayzabeth Ginger Lopez, an organizer from Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), who marveled at Aixa Torres’ ability to make things happen. “I think it has a lot to do with education levels. She has a lot of organizing experience, and she’s done a lot of education advocacy. She’s really passionate, and she has a way of moving the residents over at Smith Houses.” Many developments have strong leaders, but few have the political network that helped Lower East Side’s NYCHA communities fend off the infill plan.
A more open NYCHA
If the success of the march on Albany shows anything, it’s that NYCHA would only benefit from an engaged, well-represented residency. An organized residency with a strong, well-represented voice would have the power to march on Albany repeatedly and demand the funding that the City, State, and Federal government have denied NYCHA. NYCHA’s financial woes mean that the Authority absolutely requires such action to survive.
An added benefit would be that residents would feel heard on a regular basis, rather than the way NYCHA usually encounters them— “bombarded by complaints,” as George put it.
NYCHA seems aware of the engagement problems, and is taking steps to fix them. In a statement, NYCHA said they have offered group training, as well as ongoing individual training and support for resident leaders—though currently, all prior training materials and protocols are under review. The Housing Authority also recently brought on a new Executive Vice President for Community Programs and Development, Melanie Hart. According to a spokesperson for NYCHA, one of Hart’s priorities is to review the current TPA process and procedures to ensure there are efficient and effective processes, operations and accountability, which ensures resources are reaching residents.
The spokesperson says NYCHA also has plans to launch a new resident leadership academy, which will help to increase resident engagement and resident leadership capacity. “Ultimately, the leadership academy will include new mandatory training and support regarding TPA processes, as well as a range of other essential resident leadership issues,” NYCHA wrote in an email.
Ada Thomas, for one, was unwilling to speak ill of Olatoye or Mayor de Blasio. “They seem to be very concerned,” she said. “I see them doing something.” True, NYCHA hasn’t yet responded to her requests. “But there are five hundred developments. Maybe they’re going alphabetically! We’re all the way at R. I feel they are going to get around to us.”
Mo George says the new administration is different from the previous one. “For us and for our members, they get a warmth from the current chair,” She said. “They believe her. I think that there is a sincerity when she’s speaking that you believe. So far, most of what she stated, to her credit, has been true. She’s been honest in her answers and I think people can feel that honesty.”
Johnson, too, has been impressed with Olatoye’s efforts to engage residents, and said it is a break from past leadership under Bloomberg’s Administration.
Still, there’s room for improvement. Johnson explained that the federal regulations surrounding NYCHA dictate that residents are supposed to be involved in the decision-making process at all levels. “When something becomes a thought, we’re supposed to be involved in it, from the inception of it to the completion of that thought. And that doesn’t usually happen,” he said. “It’s happening more so, but still not to the level where it should.”
For example, the planning for NextGeneration NYCHA did engage residents, but they were not involved structurally from the beginning. Another recent program, the Optimal Property Management Operating Model (OPMOM), provided training for supers and managers, but not for TAs, leaving them at a disadvantage vis a vis management.
“Sometimes I just think at the end of the day they don’t trust us or respect us enough to sit down at a board table and to be engaged and to be involved and to bring something tangible to that,” Johnson said of NYCHA leadership.
“Real resident engagement would look like residents having that opportunity, so not every time there is a forum or a meeting, people are just throwing up all their anger because they are not heard. Communication is [NYCHA’s] biggest problem,” George said. “The flaw in those visioning sessions is that it ended.”
Skeptical of the vision
One of the developments that will could see some of its open space disappear if Next Generation NYCHA includes any version of the Bloomberg-era infill plan is Van Dyke Houses I in East New York, which had NYCHA-led visioning sessions in September that included an “affordable housing” discussion.
Kenner, the TA president of Van Dyke, is a commanding presence with short-cropped hair and a deep, gravelly voice that frequently breaks into a laugh. She’s lived in Van Dyke for 55 years and gave one reason for being TA president: “Because you care.” She was deeply dissatisfied with the visioning sessions. “My question to them is, ‘You want to build another building, but you’re not taking care of the other 33 buildings,'” she told City Limits in February. “Did you go in there in good faith and say, ‘These walls need painting, tiles need to be put on the hallway floors’? Van Dyke will be 60 years old come May 31. My thing is, how you gonna put a new building, and you have old buildings surrounding, and you’re not taking care of those?”
Others at Van Dyke worry that misconceptions might have skewed the feedback NYCHA got from the visioning sessions. “People thought they would move out of Van Dyke, and they’re going to be first choice to move into these new buildings,” says Diane Waters, a tenant of Van Dyke.
A spokesperson for NYCHA confirmed that as part of the mayor’s goal to build or preserve 200,000 housing units, NYCHA identified underused properties, such as vacant lots and former parking lots, as sites to build affordable housing. “Conveying or selling NYCHA underutilized land to developers who are required to solely serve low-income families and seniors under their agreements with NYCHA, has been a way to finance these efforts and bring more affordable housing online,” NYCHA wrote in an email.
According to a NYCHA spokesperson, “NYCHA makes every effort to ensure that residents have the opportunity to move into the new developments.” For example, NYCHA might set aside a percentage, typically at least 25 percent of new units, for NYCHA resident preference. Eligible residents are then selected through an open lottery system.
Kenner and other Van Dyke residents City Limits talked to were adamant: Affordable housing is not the in best interest of their community. They believe that NYCHA is benefitting from the fact that residents are disengaged. “And they’ll play a resident against a resident,” Kenner says.
But support for the plan comes from another, perhaps unexpected, source. Bowman, the president of CCOP, did not oppose the Bloomberg infill plan. Quite the opposite, in fact. He laments the delay that the current administration caused by postponing infill. “Instead of spending time to find a way to fix the problem, they spent two years fighting over a concept instead of spending time and energy fixing the facilities and coming up with a plan,” he says. “And no one wanted to listen to that argument during that time because there was a political campaign going on.”
Bowman anticipates Next Generation NYCHA will embrace broad elements of the infill plan. “This is New York,” he explained. “If you are going to look at the reality of the future of this city, there’s always going to be major development of hi-rise buildings.” He went on, “Whoever in the public sector continues to try to make residents believe that they will be able to maintain this type of living structure without compromising with the business and private sector of government is wasting valuable time and retarding the social and economic development of the resident community, in my opinion.” Bowman’s take might make it hard for the TAs to speak with one voice in the critical chapter that’s opening.
If not now, when?
The unveiling of NextGeneration NYCHA could pose the greatest challenge yet to Tenant Associations and CCOP—not just because of what may or may not be in the plan, but also because of the existential crisis that forms its context. The decisions NYCHA will make over the next year or two could determine whether livable public housing continues to exist at a large scale in New York City, or whether NYCHA follows other housing authorities around the country into self-amputation.
How can the beleaguered TAs meet that test? Bach recommends an audit of the TPA funds. He also believes that $1 million a year should be set aside from the TPA funds to create a trust for resident participation. The money would go to an independent organization with a number of objectives: to increase broader community engagement, voter participation, community board engagement and leadership training for TAs.
Councilmember Ritchie Torres is hoping to take things one step further, and has plans to bring participatory budgeting to public housing. “The status quo has severe limitations,” Torres says. “NYCHA should be doing far more to build civic engagement in their own developments.”
They may be on the way to doing just that. “Resident input is critical to the work we do at NYCHA,” wrote Michael Kelly, General Manager of NYCHA, in an email. “As we rollout a long-term vision for NYCHA, we are looking at the best ways to engage residents and empower them on the decisions that impact them most directly. Resident leadership is a centerpiece on the next generation of New York City’s public housing.”
Residents and advocates may for the first time in many years have an administration with goals similar enough to their own to pursue real change. In order for residents to save their homes, they need leadership training, organizing assistance, voter registration, and community engagement education, says Bach of CSS. They need help setting up ongoing relationships with their city councilmembers and other elected officials. They need to get engaged with their community boards. Grassroots organizing would be the perfect place to spend some of the TPA funds. “It’s out there waiting for them,” Bach said. “The question is how to make it happen.”
This project was made possible through generous support by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.