‘We expect that NYCHA and our local elected officials will embrace the opportunity to work with us. These are our homes and nothing will happen to us without us.’

Adi Talwar

NYCHA’s Gun Hill Houses, where 1,450 people live.

The following is a statement on behalf of the organization Residents for Preserving Public Housing:

For thousands of families throughout New York City and beyond, public housing presents a lifeline that is as essential as ever in the era of COVID-19. NYCHA, however, is in distress. With a deficit over $40 billion, which grows by at least another billion every year, the agency’s financial problems have translated to a lack of quality services for residents. 

In fact, public housing residents have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic partly due to poor living conditions that have impacted the health of residents for years. NYCHA has had infrastructure and building maintenance troubles for decades at no fault of the residents.

The lack of structural quality repairs has not only made health outcomes worse for residents, they have been continually ignored. In other words, NYCHA’s financial situation has become a crisis in need of a plan.

Recently, the new NYCHA chair and CEO Greg Russ proposed creating a public benefits corporation, the “Public Housing Preservation Trust,” which aims to address the financial mess. The plan, the so-called “Blueprint for Change,” would transfer 110,000 public housing units into the trust and seek to turn public housing from Section 9 to Section 8 funding from the federal government. The plan would include tapping into tenant protection vouchers that could be used to access supplemental revenue to address the needed repairs and upgrades. 

The plan would also require sign-off from HUD, more funding from Congress as well as new state legislation to create the Trust, which would have board members to oversee the strategy.

I write representing a gathering of public-housing tenants called Residents to Preserve Public Housing. As longtime residents who’ve seen the agency and city through tough times before, we recognize the need for a plan. 

However, we do not feel enough has been done to gather tenant insight and input for the Blueprint, especially given the significant and potentially long-term impacts it will have on the lives of thousands of NYCHA residents.

It is not clear, for example, how NYCHA will raise enough money to meet the needs of the agency, around $18 to 20 billion. It is also not clear how NYCHA, which under the plan would sign a lease with the Trust, will pay back the money from a loan – or what will happen if it cannot. There are also outstanding questions about the structure of the Trust – who will be on it, how it will be run. Public housing residents not only need transparency around the Trust, but the ability to have input into how it is shaped.

Lack of communication with public housing residents, unfortunately, is all too common amongst city, state, and federal agencies. For any plan to preserve public housing in New York City to be successful, its residents must be included in the process and participate in decision-making. A top-down approach that leaves residents scrambling for answers will not only create panic and fear amongst the people who call NYCHA home, it reminds us of the bad faith we’ve seen from policy-makers and politicians in the past.

As resident-leaders, we recognize that major change is needed and that doing so requires thinking outside of the box – but this is our fight. Residents have been leading on the frontlines and advocating for funding, quality services and authentic decision-making power going back to when the first cuts to public housing were proposed. 

We plan to issue the Resident’s Response to the “Blueprint for Change” with our own set of recommendations of what must be included in any proposal. We expect that Mr. Russ and our local elected officials will embrace the opportunity to work with us. These are our homes and nothing will happen to us without us. We are also calling on NYCHA to pause on their efforts to move this plan forward and meet our demands for resident engagement:

1. NYCHA must launch a robust outreach education and socialization campaign focused on the Blueprint. Residents must be at the table and giving the space to exercise their decision-making authority and rights.

2. NYCHA should provide a financial debrief that includes all money owed to NYCHA (by i.e. by HUD, elected officials, et cetera) and outstanding financial commitments/ contracts.  The authority must provide more transparency on the Agency’s finances – including money owed from any entities.

3. NYCHA must provide transparency on how it plans to leverage Tenant Protection Vouchers to raise additional funding for NYCHA from the private sector  

4. NYCHA must explore syncing funding sources for all NYCHA units. Units previously placed under RAD should be allowed to shift to the Blueprint if it becomes the appropriate funding mechanism for NYCHA.  We need one plan for all NYCHA units.

5. Legislative socialization and adoption should be halted at both the state and federal level until 2021. The upcoming electoral period will impact the fiducial future of NYCHA. A change in leadership at the White House would make other funding streams viable. 

6. NYCHA must demonstrate that they have explored additional legislative and judicial paths to satisfy its funding shortages (i.e. the Green New Deal, H.R. 5455). 

7. NYCHA must treat the Blueprint as a draft, and per HUD’s 964 regulations, the final Blueprint must include tenant input. 

Marquis Jenkins is a member of Residents for Preserving Public Housing.