New York City Housing Authority residents say their living conditions have continued to worsen and a majority oppose the de Blasio administration’s two strategies for resolving the fiscal crisis confronting the city’s largest affordable-housing program, according to a report released Thursday.
The survey by the Community Service Society suggests the additional capital funding committed by the city and state last year may not be enough to sustain much-needed improvements to NYCHA’s deteriorating infrastructure.
At least 381,159 New Yorkers live in the 173,762 apartments found in the 2,351 residential buildings that make up NYCHA’s 316 developments across the five boroughs. Thanks to years of underfunding by all levels of government–especially the feds–NYCHA is facing a $40 billion backlog of repairs and improvements.
The de Blasio administration is implementing a rescue strategy, NYCHA 2.0, aimed at stabilizing the authority’s finances and physical state.
The CSS report, NYCHA in Flux: Public Housing Residents Respond, was based on survey data collected from a random citywide sample of 285 public housing NYCHA residents last year.
The report found NYCHA residents were “sharply divided on the two key preservation strategies in NYCHA Plan 2.0, the Mixed-Income Infill Residential Construction program and the transfer of 62,000 units to public-private partnerships.”
Suspicions about new strategies
The mixed-income infill development program, called “Build to Preserve,” targets what the city considers to be underutilized NYCHA land located in strong markets that can command high rents.
Since 2012, NYCHA has identified 38 infill development construction projects on sites like parking lots. The projects vary but each involves some new rental units; some are mixed-income projects with affordable housing units while others are 100 percent affordable housing projects. The idea is to generate lease income for NYCHA while also contributing new apartments to the city’s housing stock.
Last year, the first 100 percent affordable NextGen project was completed in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Named the Stonewall House, it is a 17-story building with 145 affordable housing units and a senior center tailored for the senior LGBTQ community.
A second Brooklyn project (a 12-story building with 180 affordable housing units) broke ground last year at Van Dyke Houses in Brownsville. In the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx, NYCHA began leasing at Mill Brook Houses, a nine-story building with 169 affordable housing units at 570 East 137th Street, according to NYCHA.
NYCHA said additional affordable housing sites have been released since and are in various stages of construction and pre-development, but did not share specifics on those sites.
The 50-50 sites , where half the new units are market-rate and the other half income-targeted, have moved more slowly. According to a Citizens Budget Commission analysis released last fall, there are six such deals in the pipeline: Cooper Park in East Williamsburg, Wyckoff Gardens in Boerum Hill, LaGuardia Houses on the Lower East Side, Harborview Terrace in Hell’s Kitchen, Fulton Houses in Chelsea and Holmes Towers on the Upper East Side. The project at Holmes Towers was shelved amid community opposition and after Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer filed a lawsuit against the deal, citing insufficient public review.
“We have said that we would work with the community on individual plans for the specific developments that better align with the NYCHA 2.0 goals,” NYCHA told City Limits in an email. “We were in the midst of one such robust planning process at Fulton Houses earlier this year, but obviously such engagement has been put on hold as NYCHA and our residents address the immediate needs of the COVID-19 crisis.”*
According to the CSS report, 57 percent of NYCHA residents oppose the Infill program.
The other preservation program, “PACT to Preserve,” is slated to transfer 62,000 public housing units to public-private partnerships that will own and manage them under long-term leasing arrangements over a 10-year period.
The program, announced in 2018, would convert the units to Section 8 funding and remain permanently affordable. By converting the units to Section 8’s more reliable funding stream and bringing in private partners, PACT aims to create more financing options to pay for the work those buildings need. The program is supposed to address nearly $13 billion in repairs.
So far, NYCHA and its development partners have converted 7,799 units across 30 developments through the PACT program and in February, the city announced its commitment for another 5,908 units.
According to the CSS report, 56 percent of surveyed NYCHA residents oppose the conversion program.
Concerns date to the Bloomberg era
One of those opponents is Aixa Torres, president of Alfred E Smith Resident Association for Smith Houses in Two Bridges. Torres told City Limits in a phone interview that a proposed development on Smith Houses land during the Bloomberg administration did not promise to provide sufficient capital funding for the repairs and improvements needed, and she feared it could lead to worse treatment of longtime residents.
“This was my argument: I need $15 million. But the luxury apartments are only going to bring $8 million, what are we going to do with that? Because I’ve done the math. And then there are residents here who are going to be treated like second-class citizens. And that was the fight we had,” says Torres. “All we have is one baseball field and a parking lot. And parking in this area because of the police department is horrendous because they took all our parking away and gave it to the police. And then you want us to give it up? “
“I got residents with $2,000 rent. I’m retired. I’m still paying taxes. So they need to treat us like citizens who are responsible taxpayers,” Torres says. “So no, we don’t want anything built here and that’s it. It’s simple as that and the repairs have to be done. There has been a total disregard for public housing and how it needed to be done by the State and the Feds.”
As a candidate, de Blasio disavowed infill. As mayor, however, he embraced a revised approach with a similar mechanism: The new buildings all will contain some number of income-target apartments as part of his affordable-housing plan.
Maintenance woes persist
The report also found that, despite the city accelerating NYCHA repair efforts, conditions were still lagging and progress was slow. The report found the proportion of NYCHA households who say they had“problems” or “serious problems” with heating, leaks, mold, or the need for major repairs rose from 47 to 63 percent between 2017 and 2019. The share registering “problems” or “serious problems” with properly working elevators, door locks, buzzers, or intercoms increased from 55 to 71 percent over the last two years. Asked if they felt secure in common areas such as hallways and public areas, the answer saying “no” rose from 39 to 60 percent between 2017 and 2019.
Torres said repairs and improvements have been continuous and property managers are listening to residents but it has been a long fight for Smith Houses. Torres said under the Bloomberg administration her community and resident association fought for new gas pipes and went as far as bringing a lawsuit against NYCHA. Smith Houses saw new gas pipes come in under the de Blasio administration.
“This was during the Bloomberg administration and they forced us to go to court so we could get new gas pipes. I actually had two buildings that, but by the grace of God, they did not blow up,” said Torres.
Most complaints “centered on management not responding to repair needs and the poor quality of work done by outside contractors,” the CSS report found: Fifty-eight percent of surveyed NYCHA residents rated management negatively and 31 percent rated it as “poor.” The report also found that 51 percent of residents gave examples of shoddy renovation work.
“The analysis of living conditions suggests that, despite the reinvestment and NYCHA’s stepped up efforts to make improvements, accelerating deterioration has [passed] NYCHA’s efforts and increased city investment and living conditions seem to continue to worsen at least for the time being. Which says that an injection of much more capital is needed, if we want to see a broad improvements in the picture,” said Victor Bach, one of the report’s authors and Senior Housing Policy Analyst at the Community Service Society.
Last year in January, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the de Blasio administration reached an agreement, under the threat of a federal takeover, for a federal monitor to oversee how NYCHA addresses substandard living conditions, assesses NYCHA operations and informs organizational reform. The monitor reports to HUD, Southern District of New York and the US Environmental Protection Agency.
The agreement set deadlines to address lead-based paint hazards, heating outages, elevator repairs, toxic mold and pest infestations. The agreement also increased the city’s capital commitments by a billion dollars over four years for capital repairs and an additional $200 million in each of the following six years — in addition to the nearly $2 billion for capital expenses and $972 million for operations already committed by the city.
“NYCHA is currently working on a Transformation Plan that will empower property management staff in new ways to address compliance issues and create a culture of service for our residents,” the housing authority said in a statement. “CSS is an important stakeholder and we appreciate their recommendations as we continue to develop our plans for a transformed NYCHA.”
Chances and challenges
Now the city is in the midst of a pandemic that has exposed with deadly clarity the same race and class disparities that have been on display for years in NYCHA. The health emergency and fiscal crunch could make NYCHA’s road to recovery even steeper.
“[The coronavirus epidemic] has definitely slowed down NYCHA’s planned improvements in the quality of life for residents as embodied in NYCHA’s plan 2.0,” Bach says.
The good news for NYCHA is that, according to the survey by CSS (a City Limits funder), 40 percent of residents are open to both the infill and the conversion strategy.
The bad news is, 37 percent are opposed to either. Those residents who opposed the preservation programs feared “advancing gentrification and potential resident displacement.”
That is a common argument by advocates and residents who oppose one or both strategies. They believe the solution to NYCHA’s problems is to correct the funding imbalance at its sources: to get federal, state and local government to provide sufficient subsidies to get the housing they built and own back in working shape.
The hope for outside might not be realistic (although the prospects would certainly brighten under a Democratic president and Congress). The fear of infill might be overstated. But it is still real, the report read: “Infill construction does not directly threaten the tenure of current or future NYCHA residents. Yet, the fear of creeping gentrification and its potential for displacement is, nevertheless, widespread.”
The danger, according to the report, is that the deep misgivings about infill and PACT–a majority of residents opposing one or the other strategy and a sizeable minority opposing both–coupled with slow repair progress could create “conditions for mobilized, vocal opposition that has stalled previous NYCHA plans,” read the report.
The pandemic, Bach says, “reinforced criticism that there are two separate city plans for housing: on the one hand, the mayor’s signature affordable housing plan and on the other, the NYCHA plan.”
“I think it’s a clear instance of a firewall that separates the two plans. And that creates a situation in which the two plans compete for resources,” Bach says. “I think NYCHA has suffered as a result of competing for financial benefits, like low income housing tax credits and tax exempt financing.”
Among the report’s 10 recommendations were for the city to provide additional capital funding to NYCHA, create a unified affordable housing plan rather than separate plans for public housing and other affordable housing, launch an independent entity for oversight on PACT and RAD conversions, “one that includes seats for selected resident leaders from converted developments, who would be in a position to channel and address emerging resident concerns,” the report read.
*This section of the article was clarified when, after initial publication, NYCHA provided an update on the status of projects.