As he announced a sweeping consent decree to settle federal allegations of mismanagement at the New York City Housing Authority on Monday, Mayor de Blasio toggled between conflicting themes. He invited New Yorkers to “dwell on the history” of federal disinvestment in public housing but also insisted, “We are not here to rehash each and every step of the past.”
It’s not clear which approach will govern how the mayor approaches a task he set for himself in his remarks to reporters: punishing the NYCHA staff members involved in the deception of federal inspectors that the U.S. attorney alleged was systemic at the authority, which the mayor said sickened him.
“I emphasize the complaint is a series of allegations and we will independently review them and if we find that any individuals who work for NYCHA did anything inappropriate there will be very serious consequences for them,” the mayor said, adding later: “We will do the work of weeding out anyone who should not be here or anyone who’s done something wrong. But even more important is fixing the problem, and that work is sacred and has to happen every single day.”
In outlying a darkly comical menu of deceit at the authority, from turning off water to conceal leaks to inserting cardboard in place of missing ceiling tiles, the U.S. attorney mentions no names. But among those implicated by title are directors, deputy directors, senior managers, administrators, property managers, a “senior Operations manager” and a “senior NYCHA executive.”
Lower-level workers are also implicated in executing the deception. The complaint says, “NYCHA property managers often direct maintenance workers to literally cover up broken doors” and “a former NYCHA caretaker has explained how her superintendent would instruct staff before PHAS inspections to lock the doors of basement rooms with dangerous or unsanitary conditions and post a sign reading ‘Danger: Do Not Enter,’ to keep the inspectors out.”
Gregory Floyd, the president of Teamsters Local 237—which represents NYCHA property managers, caretakers and other front-line employees—tells City Limits that those reports were news to him.
“I don’t have any firsthand knowledge of that. No employee or member has ever told me that that was going on,” Floyd says. He adds: “Employees don’t come up with those ideas on their own.” Floyd said he was not questioned by federal investigators and that no member alerted the union to their being questioned.
Floyd also said no employee had made the union aware that they were being asked to do work on lead paint without adequate certification, a main contention in the federal complaint. He said he was not aware of a “quick fix” handbook the U.S. attorney alleged NYCHA used to direct employees in their deception.
Asked what he thinks de Blasio possibly holding employees responsible for their role in the NYCHA deception, Floyd said that was fine “as long as he starts at the top.”
In the Monday press conference, de Blasio indicated that the accountability effort has already begun. “I think other people have been held accountable previously, in a variety of ways, and we needed to focus on fixing the problem first,” he said. Later, the mayor added: “[C]learly, some people have been held accountable, some people are not there anymore.”
Like the feds, the mayor did not name names. He might have been referring to senior vice president Brian Clarke and director of technical services Jay Krantz, who both resigned in November, or to senior vice president Luis Ponce, who was suspended or demoted back that same month, or even Michael Kelly, the authority’s general manager, who resigned in January. But he didn’t mention any of them.
The mayor did, however, defend Shola Olatoye, the chairwoman of NYCHA, who resigned in April. “You know exactly what happened with her, she made a decision to leave,” de Blasio told reporters when asked on Monday about her rile. “I thought she was doing important and good work. She was as frustrated as I was that she was not given accurate information by other people in the organization.”
For Floyd, the mayor’s defense of Olatoye—who signed the false declarations about the lead testing that were submitted to the federal government—undermines other steps he might take to discipline people who neglected their duty. “What are you going to do to the employees now that you let the main culprit off the hook?” he asked.
De Blasio struck an optimistic tone on Monday, saying that the federal monitor could prove helpful and eyeing the possibility of Democratic victories in 2018 and 2020 that made change the financial prospects for public housing. For his part, Floyd does not see a glass half full. “I’m not optimistic that NYCHA can turn the corner with that commitment because, still, you don’t have a commitment from the federal government to put additional moneys in to repair the buildings,” he said. All the federal government did, Floyd added, “was shake the city down for money without offering money of its own.”