Opinion: NYCHA’s Memorandum of Misunderstanding

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NYCHA

A design meeting at the Red Hook Houses in 2017. The author argues that NYCHA has been inconsistent in how it handles tenant input.

As the Council today holds a hearing on NYCHA’s future, they should look to its past. How’s this for a progressive policy to address the crisis facing the nation’s largest public housing authority, and the half-million residents there?

“Our policy shall be that resident participation is a process of consultation between NYCHA and residents with information about NYCHA plans and decisions. Residents shall be afforded opportunities to make comments and recommendations, on an advisory basis, about those plans and decisions.”

This is a declaration of values and practice to which NYCHA needs to adhere. But it’s not a new solution—it’s a decades-old broken promise.

In 1992, NYCHA itself authored a Memorandum of Understanding declaring its commitment to, and outlining a practice of, involving tenants and resident associations in its decision-making, ensuring that changes are made with those affected and not to them. It was then promptly ignored. But almost 30 years later, it still provides a roadmap for a degree of tenant involvement we have not seen but desperately need.

As the document attests, “The authority pledges to review resident policy with the recognized citywide residents organizations to ensure resident participation in maintaining and ever-improving the quality of life for NYCHA residents.”

NYCHA has completely abdicated its responsibility to tenant accountability, and has not adhered to the pledges of that memorandum. I am currently pursuing legislation to create a task force which would examine that lack of accountability and participation, and the issues which stem from it. That task force, itself a mechanism of power for tenants, would recommend a way forward. Unlike its 1992 counterpart, it could not be ignored.

Almost three decades ago, NYCHA declared that it would provide residents with information on “new programs and funding opportunities before decisions on targeting the new resources are made.” In the time since, we have seen funding wane on all levels, from municipal to federal. We have seen deplorable and dangerous conditions on the rise without the money or the management to fix it. We have seen NYCHA become a permanent fixture as a perennial political prop.

We have seen plenty of proposals and promises for reform—most recently, the renewed plan by this administration to utilize public-private partnerships. What we have not seen is a meaningful dialogue with tenants about the so-called “solutions” that are implemented, one where tenant needs and input are taken as a priority rather than an afterthought or a box to check off.

So let’s give tenants a box to check off. Before any decision is made in concert with NYCHA—with this mayoral, state, or federal administration—let’s hear from tenants. Give resident association leaders a vote on any action being taken, and make the outcome of that vote public. This may or may not mean these administrations will actually heed the verdict of tenants—that amount of commitment may take another 30 years or so—but let’s start catching up, and live up to the promise that’s nearly that old.

I’m sure that the intention back then wasn’t to ignore that stated mission. Maybe it was all a misunderstanding.

Jumaane Williams is the Public Advocate for the City of New York.

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