Engagement is the foundation for reversing a historical backlog of distrust that is stalling the agency’s current efforts not only to restore its portfolio to a state of good repair but reinvent itself in a way that better serves tenants in the future.
Despite the unprecedented challenges COVID added to our ability to reform NYCHA, there are signs we might be starting to make progress in restoring our already beleaguered public housing system. From federal receivership to experiments with private intervention and systemically rethinking its organizational structure, the agency has taken steps toward effective innovation during this year of ongoing crisis.
Yet it is no exaggeration to say NYCHA’s future hinges on bridging the gap of trust that has grown between its staff and residents. The agency itself acknowledges this credibility gap in its new Transformation Plan. Decades of unaddressed tenant complaints—broken elevators, mold, lack of mid-winter heat—have taken their toll.
To restructure and rebuild effectively, the agency must center the process on resident outreach that meaningfully informs tenants and bases planning on their feedback.
A critical case in point is the ongoing controversy over NYCHA’s Permanent Affordability Commitment Together (PACT) initiative, which enables the agency to secure financing from private partners to address urgent infrastructure repairs by converting NYCHA campuses to Section 8 housing. PACT has proven successful at updating public housing infrastructure while ensuring strict tenant rights, but NYCHA residents remain understandably wary of the program as a potential mechanism of displacement.
Into this breach, as NYCHA plans to redevelop a third of its portfolio through PACT, the agency has taken an important step: releasing a Request For Proposals (RFP) for a $10 million program of resident engagement specifically to guarantee the careful implementation of a solution that could make the difference between stabilizing its financial crisis or deepening its conditions of unlivable disrepair.
The success of that engagement is going to make or break PACT, which could make or break NYCHA’s ability to address its staggering capital needs.
Because let’s be clear: at present New Yorkers in public housing face two equally unappealing options: they can protest PACT conversions, as many are doing, which means their buildings may sink deeper into unlivable conditions—or they can place their faith in a landlord that has done little to earn it over the past several decades, which many are doing only after exhaustive study of the options available to them.
The agency’s Transformation Plan articulates a renewed commitment to establishing a ‘culture of service’ that will rebuild trust in the context of addressing immediate concerns, like the daily upkeep of living conditions. But that goal, though this goes unstated, is really the foundation for more sweeping measures to set NYCHA on a path to success over the next decade.
Effective community engagement—outreach that doesn’t just passively solicit feedback, but proactively educates residents and makes their input the backbone of decision-making—isn’t something NYCHA needs to do because it sounds nice or as lip service to equity and inclusion. Engagement is the foundation for reversing a historical backlog of distrust that is stalling the agency’s current efforts not only to restore its portfolio to a state of good repair but reinvent itself in a way that better serves tenants in the future.
The good news is we know what effective engagement looks like and the results it can produce.
For example, our team at Karp Strategies, a community-minded urban planning consultancy, led research on behalf of Enterprise Community Partners for NYCHA’s program evaluation of PACT at the Ocean Bay Apartments complex in Queens. This evaluation offered strong and clear recommendations for NYCHA’s further rollout of the program. Our goal in speaking with residents wasn’t simply to check an obligatory box but rather to make sure community concerns were addressed in real time. Through focus groups and interviews we ensured the transition to Section 8 housing was working for current tenants. This is the kind of partnership that builds trust and enables innovative solutions.
Too often resident relations are either treated as a siloed concern or subtly acknowledged as the basis for success amid a wave of urgent restructuring priorities. That’s simply not going to cut it for NYCHA on PACT—which, unlike the federal funding that never comes at the time or scale we need it, is an actionable solution we can implement effectively right now.
Let’s seize this transition period as the opportunity to put NYCHA residents in the driver’s seat in shaping a brighter future for public housing in New York.
Ali Sutherland-Brown is a Director at Karp Strategies, a New York City-based WBE-certified urban planning consultancy.