Councilmember Alicka Ampry-Samuel—who represents the 41st District of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Ocean Hill-Brownsville, East Flatbush, and Crown Heights—is President Joe Biden’s likely pick as next New York-New Jersey regional administrator for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). What would that mean for NYC tenants?

John McCarten/NYC Council

Councilmember Alicka Ampry-Samuel touring NYCHA’s Ocean Bay Houses in 2018. The campus was among the first to get converted to private management through RAD.

A Brooklyn councilmember, born and raised in NYCHA apartments, could become the next head of local public housing oversight—though NYCHA tenant leaders are divided on what that might mean.

Councilmember Alicka Ampry-Samuel—who represents the 41st District of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Ocean Hill-Brownsville, East Flatbush, and Crown Heights—is President Joe Biden’s likely pick to serve as the New York-New Jersey regional administrator for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Daily News reported last month. The role was once held by Mayor Bill de Blasio and, more recently, Trump family event planner Lynne Patton.

As regional administrator, Ampry-Samuel would oversee a 170,000-apartment network she knows well. She grew up in a NYCHA apartment, later worked as an advisor to the authority and went on to chair the City Council’s public housing committee while representing a district with the nation’s highest concentration of public housing complexes. The HUD region also covers the rest of New York, Puerto Rico and more than 100 individual housing authorities in New Jersey.

The job comes with various administrative, coordination and disaster relief responsibilities but little explicit influence over procurement, HUD says—bad news for the contractors, electricians, plumbers and HVAC installers who maxed out contributions to Ampry-Samuel’s unsuccessful reelection bid in June.

Perhaps most importantly, the role of regional administrator provides a significant platform for amplifying the demands of public housing tenants.

“In my experience, the administrator is an advocate with Washington for New York’s housing needs,” said Dr. Victor Bach, a senior housing policy analyst for the Community Service Society (a City Limits funder) who specializes in NYCHA. “It’s an important bridging role in terms of communicating the city’s needs, the needs of our affordable housing stock.”

HUD spokesperson Olga Alvarez described the role as “the face of HUD in New York and New Jersey.”

“They oversee everything and deal with the kind of initiatives HUD is dealing with,” Alvarez added.

That’s what concerns NYCHA residents and tenants leaders who disagree with those initiatives—particularly the ongoing process of turning building management over to private companies. Still others say they are excited about the prospect of a homegrown official ascending to an important housing post.

RAD skepticism

Mayor Bill de Blasio says the city’s housing authority will ultimately convert 62,000 units—about a third of its public housing stock—to private management through the city’s version of the federal Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, known as the Permanent Affordability Commitment Together (PACT) initiative. So far, 9,511 units in 50 developments have been converted to RAD-PACT, which specifically switches the source of apartment subsidies to Section 8 housing vouchers rather than the Section 9 public housing program. There are 20,201 authorized tenants in those units, NYCHA data shows.

After decades of federal, state and municipal disinvestment, NYCHA implemented the Obama-era program in order to unlock financing for sorely needed capital repairs and lead abatement.

Ampry-Samuel has so far taken mixed positions on RAD-PACT. In November 2020, she told PoliticsNY that RAD-PACT had the support of many NYCHA tenants and could be an effective solution for funding the necessary work. Four months later, however, she responded to a Met Council candidate questionnaire saying that she does not support RAD-PACT. In August, she and other elected officials urged NYCHA to halt future RAD conversions and document how they inform tenants about the impact of the private model.

Some tenant leaders say they want full-throated opposition.

“We commended her for being chair of housing, but she is for RAD and we’re not going to get support from her when we don’t want to go into a Section 8 program,” said Cynthia Tibbs, president of the ​​Westside Urban Renewal Tenants Association, which represents residents in NYCHA-owned brownstones on the Upper West Side.

Tibbs said she is concerned about the risk of eviction from private property managers, and said tenants in the nearby Wise Towers have seen no improvements to their homes under the new set-up. In some ways, things have gotten worse, she said. “The management company talks to them like they’re less than human. The on-site super is never anywhere to be found,” she said.

David Leichter, a tenant advocate in Williamsburg’s Independence Towers, also says he is skeptical of Ampry-Samuel because of her RAD stance. Leichter said his building has undergone major months-long renovations under PACT, creating havoc for residents with little acknowledgement from the management company.

“They’re disconnected from the people here. They don’t hold any meetings. They do whatever they want to do,” he said.

RAD’s proponents have acknowledged tenant concerns about privatization but say the apartment complexes will still be publicly owned and the units permanently affordable—rents are capped at 30 percent of household income, though that will mark an increase for many families.

Public housing advocates say RAD is just the latest step in a decades-long turn toward privatization across once-public institutions, but it may be the most politically expedient method for funding tens of billions of dollars in renovations, said Hunter College professor Nicholas Dagen Bloom.

“We know what needs to be done. The big question is who is going to pay for it,” said Bloom, whose book “Public Housing That Worked” details the history of NYCHA. “You need to find $40 billion to renovate it. There’s an anti-RAD piece, but the public is not stepping up to make people’s lives better.”

Ampry-Samuel did not respond to questions for this story. She has so far declined to discuss her potential nomination. So have HUD and NYCHA. “She’s still a member of the New York City Council and this is the job,” said her Deputy Chief of Staff Naomi Hopkins. “She has not made any statements regarding this appointment.”

NYCHA spokesperson Rochel Leah Goldblatt said the agency “is looking forward to working with the new HUD Regional Administrator,” whoever it might be.

“Over the past two years, NYCHA has developed a good working relationship with HUD and we will continue to work with HUD to ensure our residents have safe and healthy homes,” Goldblatt said.

Ocean Bay

Harry DiPrinzio

The Ocean Bay development in the Rockways was a test case for NYCHA’s use of the RAD program.

Hope for ‘a true champion’

Other NYCHA tenant leaders, even those who oppose RAD, say they are excited about the prospect of Ampry-Samuel overseeing the area’s public housing and advocating for residents.

As a former NYCHA tenant and advisor, she understands the issues facing public housing residents, said Danny Barber, the head of the Citywide Council of Presidents. His organization includes NYCHA tenant representatives from across New York City.

“She’s a true champion loved and liked by the people, and I believe she would be a great regional administrator and I believe the residents will have a true friend in her if she is appointed administrator,” Barber said. “She is someone who grew up in the struggle.”

He praised Ampry-Samuel’s work as chair of the public housing committee, where he said she fostered hearings that forced NYCHA officials to listen to the concerns of tenants.

“She came to be a difference in the housing committee to allow the residents to give their concerns and issues first, instead of for years, the residents had to listen to NYCHA and NYCHA’s executive staff would walk out of hearings and not listen to the tenants,” he said. “She has charged NYCHA to sit and listen and endure the issues that residents have been forced to live through for years.”

Barber said he hopes Ampry-Samuel will use her platform to advocate for more federal funding and to encourage local members of Congress to prioritize public housing. He cited the debate over infrastructure as an example of where an effective regional administrator could have influence.

The Biden Administration wants to allocate $40 billion to public housing nationwide. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who recommended Ampry-Samuel for the HUD post, has proposed doubling that amount to $80 billion, with much of the additional cash going to NYCHA. A regional administrator could further galvanize support for consistent funding among New York and New Jersey representatives, Barber said.

South Jamaica Houses Tenant Association President Manny Martinez also said he was pleased to learn Ampry-Samuel could become regional head.  

“Alicka Ampry Samuel has been a strong voice in regards to the public housing predicament,” Martinez said. “She used her power as the chair of public housing to bring some attention to issues and she allowed our voices to get heard.”

He specifically urged the next regional administrator to ensure local public housing authorities uphold an economic requirement intended to provide jobs and contract opportunities to tenants. The rule, known as Section 3, mandates that HUD-funded agencies and vendors provide 30 percent of jobs and subcontracts to public housing tenants or low-income residents. In practice, that isn’t happening.

“The massive economic injustice of Section 3 has a better opportunity to be corrected,” he said. 

Campaign cash from contractors

Ampry-Samuel is in position to become regional administrator after losing her bid for re-election to her predecessor, former Councilmember Darlene Mealy. It wasn’t for lack of funds.

Ampry-Samuel was one of 14 City Council candidates who raised more than $100,000 ahead of the June primary, City Limits reported earlier this year. She did it by skipping public matching funds—which capped individual contributions at $1,000—and receiving checks up to $2,850 from an array of sources, including trade contractors who could stand to benefit from agreements with a public housing authority.

Many of her biggest contributions came in between Dec. 25 and Dec. 29, 2020, with Ampry-Samuel taking in $2,800 checks from officials at the companies New Century Air Inc., KA Electric, Nasco Tiles, Sino Empire Construction, All Seasons Decor and Best Piping & Heating during that period, campaign finance records show.

City Limits attempted to contact each person who gave Ampry-Samuel at least $2,800 during that period to find out what motivated them to contribute. One man, Sino Empire Construction’s Meridjian Kollcinaku, said he never made a payment to Ampry-Samuel but would review his finances. He later stopped responding to phone calls. Another contributor, Ronen Kosokhar, who is listed in Campaign Finance Board records as a mechanic for New Century Air Inc., said he did make the contribution but then hung up and also stopped answering phone calls.   

None of the companies linked to the high-dollar contributors appear to have agreements with NYCHA, according to a review of authority contracts.

Ampry-Samuel’s campaign team did not provide a response to questions about the funds. 

Other major contributors include Alexander Rovt, a billionaire fertilizer and real estate tycoon who has splashed hundreds of thousands of dollars on the state Democratic party and local candidates in recent years. Rovt chairs Brookdale Hospital, located just outside Ampry-Samuel’s 41st Council District, and gave her a total of $2,800. He and his company IBE Trade Corp. did not respond to requests for comment.

Regardless of the campaign funders’ intentions, there’s probably little chance of them currying favor with a potential public housing official. 

HUD said regional administrators do not play any role in awarding contracts, and the New York-New Jersey Office of Field Policy and Management, where the regional administrator works, does not oversee contracts.

Three public housing experts—Bach, Bloom and New School Milano Public Policy Chair Dr. Alex Schwartz—also said a regional administrator is unlikely to have a hand in the tightly-regulated procurement process.

“The contracts that NYCHA takes care of are handled in the Capital Projects Division and there are a lot of layers,” Bloom said. “It’s really bureaucratic.”