An attempt to involve residents in NYCHA’s selection of the developer for income-targeted and market-rate housing at a Brooklyn site has faltered over whether tenants can bring a lawyer to meetings.
That lawyer was barred from attending a meeting in late February and, after NYCHA refused to relent, public-housing tenants at the Wyckoff Gardens development refused to attend an orientation session scheduled for late last week.
“This thing is a quagmire,” says Craig Holmes, chairman of the Wyckoff Gardens Stakeholder Committee, who has lived at Wyckoff for 50 years.
Wyckoff Gardens is one of two NYCHA developments named so far where the de Blasio administration plans to lease land to private firms that will construct new residential buildings split between affordable housing and market-rate units. NYCHA’s plan for Wyckoff Gardens, located in Boerum Hill, calls for 500 units of new housing, 50 percent of it income-targeted (or “affordable”). Holmes Houses in Yorkville is the other NYCHA property involved in that program.
A separate initiative to construct 100-percent income-targeted housing is also underway. Developers were picked last spring to build at Brooklyn’s Ingersoll and Van Dyke developments and Mill Brook houses in the Bronx. NYCHA took bids last year on seven* more such developments for the Betances V and VI, East 165th Street, Twin Parks West, Sumner, Harborview and Morrsania.
No public-housing residents will lose their apartments in the deals but the creation of new housing on NYCHA territory is controversial. The use of public-housing land for market-rate apartments strikes some as a betrayal of the authority’s founding purpose. Many residents and advocates have expressed concerns that the affordable units created under the program will serve more affluent people than currently live in each area, spurring gentrification in the broader neighborhood. Critics also fear the creation of a two-tiered NYCHA, with shiny buildings for newcomers next to crumbling older structures housing long-term residents.
NYCHA has pledged to use money from the new development projects to fix existing buildings. It has provided little detail on its revenue projections, however.
Toward the end of his term, Mayor Bloomberg also attempted to develop housing on NYCHA territory, though his approach involved a lower share of affordable apartments. That effort was derailed by tenant opposition. Under de Blasio’s NYCHA Chairwoman Shola Olatoye, the authority has tried to avoid that fate. It has moved to better engage tenants on several fronts, including around the proposed new developments. At Wyckoff Gardens that meant the creation of the stakeholder committee to provide input on the project. A subset of that committee was to be allowed to review at least some of the bids submitted for the work there.
However, the stakeholder committee has wrestled with NYCHA over the details of the smaller bid-review group. NYCHA restricted the smaller group to tenants, barring advocates from attending, and insisted that attendees sign a confidentiality agreement. At first, the authority would permit only five tenants to be involved, but that has grown to 10.
Now the sides are jousting over exactly what role the group will play and whether they can have a lawyer with them.
Asked why he wants a lawyer present, Holmes answers: “Just support. Because the whole thing is, we have to sign a confidentiality agreement. I understand all that. I’m not college-educated. But that’s not my field of expertise.” Holmes says he wants to be sure he understands when that confidentiality promise in binding and what it means. He is worried that once he signs it, he will be unable to get feedback on what he learns in the review sessions. NYCHA has a large support staff, he notes, and he is confused about the reluctance to allow tenants to have one of their own. “With a lawyer, it keeps things above board.”
In a Wednesday email shared with members of the stakeholder committee, NYCHA executive vice president for external affairs David Pristin refused a request to relent on the prohibition against legal counsel for the advisory group. He wrote: “We do not expect any legal issues to come up in this process that couldn’t be dealt with outside of the RFP process, and NYCHA and [the Department of Housing Preservation and Development] will be providing resident reviewers with support through this process and will be available to answer residents’ questions.” Pristin added, “We do not expect residents to provide feedback on the more technical elements of the RFP — e.g. financing and massing analysis” but rather to stick to a list of tenant concerns created earlier in the process.
In a statement, NYCHA said, “Improving residents’ quality of life is at the heart of our development work, which is why we’ve created a process that includes an unparalleled level of transparency and community engagement. Including lobby meetings, door knocking, community meetings, robocalls, the creation of a resident and community stakeholder committee and an unprecedented RFP process at 50/50 sites to include residents.”
NYCHA’s development efforts are aimed at bolstering the mayor’s affordable-housing plan and shoring up the authority’s shaky finances through the lease payments generated by the deal. NYCHA has reportedly identified 80 sites for new development. The authority’s NextGeneration plan set a goal of creating 10,000 units of affordable housing on NYCHA land. The three 100-percent-affordable deals for which developers have been selected comprise only 489 units, with another 800 total units in play at Wyckoff and Holmes.
In a briefing for reporters last month, Olatoye said the authority was “a major part of the mayor’s affordable housing plan” but stressed that the focus was also on NYCHA’s bottom line. “Look, we have to raise additional revenues, and the way we do that is through our development pipeline,” she said. “We’re really made a commitment to the idea that the city needs more affordable housing while we also need revenue.”
NYCHA characterizes the level of tenant engagement at Wyckoff as “unprecedented,” although the development projects are themselves novel. Craig Holmes is not especially impressed by the engagement efforts. “Why have a steering committee if you’re going to keep dictating?” he asks. “They want engagement when it benefits them.”
*Correction: The original version of the article incorrectly said only two additional sites were out to bid. In fact, seven are. It also omitted the official name of the committee, which is the Wyckoff Gardens Stakeholder Committee.
City Limits coverage of NYCHA is supported by the New York Community Trust and the Charles H. Revson Foundation.