CityViews: NYCHA Must Fix Our Homes Before Developing New Ones

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Jim Henderson

Wyckoff Gardens, one of the NYCHA developments where new housing is planned to be 50 percent market-rate and 50 percent affordable.

On September 26th, FUREE and Turning the Tide climate justice initiative members testified at a Federal hearing regarding a proposed settlement for two Federal cases, the U.S. and Baez cases, both against the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). The settlements address unmet lead & mold abatements in NYCHA, lack of timely repairs, lack of provision of adequate heat & water, functioning elevators, uncontrolled pest infestations, and fraudulent inspections whereby the City of New York (via NYCHA, NYC’s largest landlord) admits to numerous housing-code, environmental and human-rights violations disproportionately impacting the health and safety of hundreds of thousands of low-income residents, in particular children and seniors of color. As the hours passed, we listened to story after story of how NYCHA’s failure to provide adequate repairs and remediation to address lead, mold, water leaks, sewage backups, vermin, and broken boilers, elevators, doors, mailboxes and windows is causing severe consequences to both the mental and physical health of public housing residents.

Within the terms of a proposed settlement, the City of New York has committed to pay $2 billion for false reports of work inspections on lead-paint and mold remediation, in addition to other essential maintenance failures. While we, as residents of and advocates for public housing, greatly appreciated the opportunity to testify in court and thank Judge William Pauley and the office of the attorney general for their patience and understanding in listening to the multiple painful stories of NYCHA residents pleading for help, we left the Federal Courthouse adamant that more action must be taken to address this health and housing rights crisis impacting nearly one out of every 14 New Yorkers who lives in public housing.

In short, we believe that any NYCHA initiative that does not directly lead to improved living conditions in residents’ apartments in NYCHA’s existing portfolio must cease until this crisis is resolved.

At the forefront of this position has been our collective experience engaging with, and as, public housing residents skeptical of many parts of Mayor de Blasio’s public-housing fiscal sustainability plan, known as “NextGeneration NYCHA.”

Within this plan, development sites on NYCHA grounds have been selected—including where some of us live at Wyckoff Gardens in Brooklyn—to be the site of new market-rate and city-funded affordable housing. At Wyckoff Gardens the proposed development project would build 500 new units of housing, 250 of which would have market rents, to raise revenue for repairs in our development and across NYCHA. The monies raised through 50/50 infill, as this program is called, are insufficient to cover a backlog of millions of dollars needed for repairs and ongoing maintenance required at our NYCHA development. The severity of our situation is only underscored by the fact that we are experiencing increasing building systems failures. We currently have a temporary boiler, since the existing one has failed. We also have a tremendous lack of confidence that the extensive repairs needed will be made promptly. We can envision a scenario where the new 50/50 infill buildings are built on our campus grounds before our current apartment interiors are fixed, simply furthering the “Tale of Two Cities” de Blasio said he wanted to end. .

The Wyckoff Gardens proposed development scheme involved the formation of a resident stakeholder committee which collapsed due to NYCHA’s lack of transparency and zero communication from both NYCHA and the selected developers, the Arker Companies and Two Trees. This plan, which was originally marketed to be for the benefit of tenants, appears to be little more than a rubber stamp for additional development, as our homes crumble around us.

On October 22nd, we marked the sixth anniversary since Superstorm Sandy hit NYC. Local Sandy-impacted public housing developments in Red Hook and Gowanus are still waiting for new boiler replacements and repairs. Mold conditions in these buildings were greatly exacerbated by the Storm. NYCHA failed to satisfy the settlement conditions of the 2014 lawsuit Baez v. NYCHA to remediate mold in its apartments. To address this failure, they launched the Mold Busters pilot program last year, with Wyckoff Gardens and neighboring Warren Street houses as part of the pilot. Unfortunately, for some of residents, the remedy has been worse than the problem, as the anti-mold paint triggered acute asthma episodes necessitating hospitalization of residents in buildings where the program was implemented.

We continue to ask NYCHA to communicate local emergency response protocols to residents. With the heat and water outages over the past winter, there were no NYCHA communications in regards to building-specific outages and onsite protocols and services. Now with another winter, and hurricane season, we still have no resident emergency response plan and no tenant registry for those vulnerable residents who need assistance during life threatening emergencies.

As we await Judge Pauley’s decision on the proposed settlements regarding lack of repairs and oversight at NYCHA, the New York City Council is also holding two hearings regarding NYCHA: one regarding the heat and hot water outages that impacted over three quarters of all NYCHA tenants this past winter, and another on NYCHA privatization and development. For all of these inquiries, our testimony remains the same: There needs to be a moratorium on any new development schemes until NYCHA housing complies with all New York City building codes, Authority officials and workers who have acted criminally should face charges for their role in these scandals and there must be an overhaul of the Authority from the ground up that truly empowers the voice of ordinary residents and gives them ample opportunity to have active roles in the management and preservation of their homes.

Meanwhile, our community finds itself at a critical turning point about the future of our homes and what state they may be in. Our Gowanus neighborhood is undergoing a neighborhood-wide rezoning which is leading to billions in new real estate investments around us, while our developments continue to lack the basic necessities that any community should have. Even mayoral promises made to bring a bit of equity to our community in advance of a neighborhood wide rezoning, such as re-opening the Gowanus Houses Community Center, continue to go unfulfilled.

It’s the 50th Anniversary of the Fair Housing Act prohibiting housing discrimination. In light of this, New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development is leading the city’s Where We Live NYC engagement process to make sure “the City of New York is developing the next chapter of fair housing policies that fight discrimination, breakdown barriers to opportunity, and build more just and inclusive neighborhoods.” New York City must ensure fair housing law is followed in public housing for residents That means taking heating outages or other violations as seriously as in privately owned buildings. We cannot and should not have a double standard whereby private owners are held to one standard and NYCHA is held to another to the detriment of its residents. We must be active stakeholders because a government agency is our landlord and because so many of us live in public housing due to the failure to provide affordable housing without discrimination elsewhere.

Public housing has been vital for low-and moderate-income New Yorkers following the legacy of redlining, federal disinvestment and environmental racism. As part of the mayor’s commitment to affordable housing in New York City and now Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing – the best way to support equity, inclusion and justice for public-housing residents is to renew the city’s commitment to public housing and build and preserve housing for extremely low income New Yorkers that is affordable to NYCHA residents.

It’s time to end NYCHA operating outside of the City’s code enforcement system, and separate from its Housing NY affordable housing plan. If the Mayor believes himself to be elected to end the “Tale of Two Cities”, he should start by supporting public housing residents in getting the justice we deserve.

This op-ed is presented by Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE) a member of Turning the Tide, a Red Hook and Gowanus, Brooklyn Climate Justice Initiative and program of the Fifth Avenue Committee. Monica Underwood, Beverly Corbin, Karen Blondel and Michael Higgins are members of that movement.

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