Republican mayoral candidate Nicole Malliotakis has called NYCHA “the biggest slumlord.” She has lambasted the authority for mismanagement, lamented the conditions of NYCHA’s buildings, criticized the mayor’s efforts to develop new housing in one complex’s backyard, and promised to appoint a liaison from the mayor’s office that deals directly with NYCHA residents.
“When I toured various NYCHA buildings I found inhabited apartments containing mold, leaking bathrooms, vermin, holes in walls and ceilings and missing tiles among other problems,” Malliotakis wrote us in an e-mail on October 6. “Throughout the complexes I saw elevators that didn’t work, non-functioning lamp posts and litter strewn playgrounds.”
It’s true that there’s an issue here that cannot be underestimated: almost half a million New Yorkers living in deteriorating housing—in proven worse condition than housing on the private market—with all the accompanying deleterious effects on residents’ health. Also true is that De Blasio didn’t create NYCHA’s problems; he inherited an ailing authority and, compared to prior mayors, has invested an unprecedented amount into its restoration. The question is whether de Blasio has done enough, and whether Malliotakis could realistically do more. And assessing that is challenging: while Malliotakis gave us a few of her positions on public housing issues in that October 6 e-mail, when we wrote back with follow-up questions, she failed to respond.
When the de Blasio administration released Next Generation NYCHA, its 10-year plan for the authority, in 2015, the authority said it had a $17 billion capital repair needs cap and an operating deficit in the tens of millions each year. The plan laid out a variety of reasons, among them NYCHA’s rising expenses and aging building stock, earlier city and state investment, and the fact that the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)—which supplies two-thirds of NYCHA’s annual operating budget—has provided only a percentage of the operating funding for which NYCHA is eligible. There are reasons to believe mismanagement during the Bloomberg years didn’t help.
The de Blasio administration then committed to a variety of initiatives aimed at turning that yearly operating deficit into a yearly surplus by 2017, reducing the capital deficit down by $4.6 billion by 2019, and improving NYCHA’s management of their buildings overall. Several of those initiatives have already taken off in the past two years, from decentralizing operations, to investing $100 million in city capital funds annually in NYCHA roof repairs, to obtaining federal and private funding through other HUD programs. Not everything went without a hitch: in March of 2016, City Limits reported that the authority had readjusted downward the revenue it expected to generate from two strategies in its plan.
Measuring the success of the 10-year plan in two years is challenging. Because the citywide physical needs assessment is only conducted every five years, and the latest one is still in progress, it’s also impossible to predict the current status of the capital deficit, which may have gone up due to new repair problems (there are more open work orders than there were a year ago) or down due to recent investments. As for the operating deficit, NYCHA did achieve a surplus in 2016, but this year it is operating at a $27.7 deficit largely because of funding cuts under the Trump administration.
The 10-year plan noted that from January 2013 to March 2015, NYCHA had already reduced service response times for basic maintenance from 134 days to 13 days and the response time for skilled trades from 262 days to 55 days. That same year, an audit by Comptroller Scott Stringer found that as of July 2014, in the first year of the de Blasio administration, NYCHA was misrepresenting the time it took to complete repairs, though in response NYCHA committed to a number of reforms and said it was changing is data tracking systems.
According to NYCHA’s figures, as of 2017, the average response time for basic maintenance had gone down to less than 5 days, while according to a review of NYCHA metrics, the average for trades like painter, carpenter and plumber continued to hover at around 60 days. There are still horror stories, however, of tenants living in unbearable conditions.
The reality is that even with these changes, the capital deficit is so great that change is not always that apparent to residents. And that leads to the bigger question here, which is whether, given the federal governments’ only increasing neglect of public housing, the de Blasio administration’s plan was sufficiently ambitious. Some advocates have demanded an even larger city-investment in NYCHA. The city’s FY 2018 capital budget provides $216 million for capital repairs in NYCHA, but earlier this month, East Brooklyn Congregations/Metro IAF called on the administration to give NYCHA an additional $225 million annually. The group also thinks the city should find a way to pay for all $17 billion of the repairs.* Union leaders and Community Voices Heard go even farther, calling for a $1 billion annual investment. The administration, for its part, has argued that it simply has other budget priorities that must also be accounted for, especially its agenda to build new affordable housing.
Earlier this month in an e-mail to Malliotakis, we mentioned De Blasio’s plan to invest $100 million annually for NYCHA roof repairs over the next decade and asked if she would keep that budget line, subtract or add to it. “As mayor I will focus on more than roof repair. Currently, NYCHA is the biggest slumlord in the City of New York and this must end,” Malliotakis wrote back. When we followed up later for further specifics and noting De Blasio’s other investments in NYCHA, she did not respond.
In the past, Malliotakis has left the impression that management, not inadequate funding, is the cause of NYCHA’s woes. When New York True asked if it was true she wasn’t planning on committing a significant amount of new funding to NYCHA, she said, “I think there’s an issue of mismanagement…when you look at how the city is being run, you see a situation where the mayor likes to tax more and throw more money at the problem…I want to be able to look at all the facts and be able to see where the money is being used, is there waste, which I believe there is.”
NYCHA does have a troubled history. Under the Bloomberg administration, it was the subject of a Daily News investigation as well as two damning reports in 2012, each of which exposed dysfunction in the agency. Reforms were undertaken at the time, including a reconstitution of the NYCHA board and efforts to streamline repairs and make the agency more transparent. But some think NYCHA still could improve. Stringer issued several disapproving audits in 2015, shortly after the release of Next Generation, including one that critiqued NYCHA for letting some vacant apartments sit empty for years (though they only constitute 1 percent of NYCHA’s housing stock, the authority says). He also issued an audit this June that criticizes NYCHA for inadequately monitoring construction contracts for building envelope rehabilitation work, though NYCHA disagreed with some of the conclusions.
When we asked Malliotakis for examples of wastefulness in NYCHA’s bureaucracy earlier this month, she pointed to the findings of Stringer’s June report. She also has insisted she’ll bring more vacant NYCHA apartments back onto rent rolls as well as incentivize the “one fifth” of residents she claims live in under-occupied apartments to downsize. (Only six percent of apartments are under-occupied, according to NYCHA.)
“Another glaring example would be the $250,000 study to determine what most of us already knew – NYCHA tenants don’t benefit from gentrification,” Malliotakis told us in an e-mail. She was referring to a study commissioned by the administration about whether public housing residents living in gentrifying neighborhoods benefit from the change. “The study was such a waste that, apparently, Mayor de Blasio didn’t even bother to read it.”
While two Daily News articles conveyed that the study was a waste—and went unread by the mayor—the study’s worth is rather a subjective matter. Its results were complicated: it found NYCHA residents did not always feel they were the benefits of gentrification, but that in fact, on average, NYCHA residents in high-income neighborhoods earned more, and their children scored higher on standardized math and reading tests than NYCHA residents in low-income neighborhoods.
Malliotakis also told New York True that another way to cut costs would be to hire more NYCHA residents to do repairs in their own buildings—benefiting residents and streamlining repairs.
NYCHA’s Office of Resident Economic Empowerment & Sustainability already administers the federal Section 3 requirement and Resident Employment Program, both of which require NYCHA or contractors to hire public housing residents or other low-income residents for a percentage of labor. Under the Bloomberg administration, NYCHA stepped up its efforts to provide training and connect residents to jobs, but there are still few residents employed in the construction trades, according to a report by the Community Service Society.
The “privatization” of NYCHA
Part of de Blasio’s plan to restore NYCHA—and build more affordable housing in the city—has included some controversial initiatives that entail partnerships with private developers. One is the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, under which a public housing development becomes jointly owned by a NYCHA and private developers, who leverage private financing for rehabilitation and use subsidy from the federal project section 8 program to pay operating costs. The program is supposed to ensure that tenants are not displaced and that they retain many of their original public housing rights, but some residents have concerns about the incorporation of private actors into the ownership arrangement.
In addition, the administration wants to work with private developers to build 10,000 units of income-targeted housing and 7,000 units of mixed-income housing on lots within existing NYCHA complexes that the authority deems “underutilized”, with current NYCHA residents receiving preference for 25% of the affordable units. Some residents are completely against this so-called “infill” development, while others would like changes to the plan. Metro-IAF wants 15,000 units of low-income senior housing on NYCHA land, with 50% reserved for NYCHA units.
In August, Malliotakis took to twitter to comment on one site where the administration has found a developer to build a mix of market-rate and income-targeted housing planned for Holmes Towers in the Upper East Side. “@NYCHA residents upset that deBlasio sold their playground to developer who raised $40k for him so he can build 47 story tower #EndPaytoPlay.” (Out of fairness, the land was not sold, but leased to the developer, who plans to build a recreation center and a new playground.)
When asked to clarify her position on infill development and to comment on RAD, Malliotakis did not respond.
Trump budget threats
Malliotakis voted for Trump, and whether or not you think the candidate can be held responsible for the president’s decisions, if elected mayor she’ll need to grapple with the federal administration’s disinterest in supporting public housing. Trump administration’s 2018 budget includes cuts to HUD that would result in a $440 million year shortfall in NYCHA’s budget. Malliotakis did not respond to questions about whether she found these potential cuts concerning and what she would do about them.
*Clarification: This sentence was added to explicate East Brooklyn Congregations/Metro IAF’s position.