By LOUIS FLORES
As the city’s housing authority moves forward with making it a priority to lease open spaces for the controversial development of new affordable housing, tenants in public housing complain that conditions at existing buildings are becoming worse.
Jeanne Bell, a resident at the Mill Brook Houses in Mott Haven, The Bronx, said that she had a poor impression of the repair service of the New York City Housing Authority, or NYCHA.
Ms. Bell spoke to Progress Queens about a telephone call she made, requesting repairs to holes in a foyer outside her apartment and to leaky pipes. Ms. Bell said that NYCHA repair officials booked an appointment to inspect her complaints five months out from the date of her telephone call.
“Service has gone down,” Ms. Bell said.
At the Martin Luther King, Jr., Houses in Harlem, residents have complained about asbestos fears after shoddy roof repair work led to interior leaks during rain storms in some apartments, according to a report published by The New York Daily News.
Pia Benton, a tenant at the Breukelen Houses in Canarsie, Brooklyn, said she held Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City) accountable for NYCHA’s poor mainteance record, saying, “Just like my daughter, the mayor is in his sophomore year. But so far he’s getting an ‘F’ for failing to lead NYCHA. He’s had more than 35 absences this year alone, and he hasn’t completed any of his assignments. Fortunately, there’s a make-up test. As tenants, we’re going to score the mayor on whether he can fix our apartments, make our lobbies safer, and clean out our stairwells. There are no short cuts and no cheating,” according to a statement provided to Progress Queens by Metro Industrial Areas Foundation, a coalition of community groups that has been escalating public pressure on Mayor de Blasio in hopes of leading to improvements in the maintenance of NYCHA’s buildings.
Progress Queens contacted the press office of City Hall, requesting an interview with an administration housing official. However, the City Hall press office never answered the request.
Calls for improving accountability
Growing discontent with the public housing record of Mayor de Blasio is triggering a backlash from community leaders.
“Mayor de Blasio keeps saying that things are getting better at NYCHA. The mayor should visit the homes of members of our churches and see their moldy bathrooms and leaky ceilings. He’ll hear that tenants are waiting months to get proper repairs in the buildings he’s in charge of,” said the Rev. Francis Skelly, Pastor at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, in a statement issued to Progress Queens by the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation, adding that, “The mayor must direct NYCHA managers to remediate mold and moisture immediately. If people refuse to do the job properly, he should let them go.”
The Metro Industrial Areas Foundation has sued NYCHA to force the housing agency to remove mold from apartments. However, the housing agency has ignored the settlement in that case, according to an editorial co-written by the Rev. Skelly and published in The New York Daily News.
To restore credibility and accountability at NYCHA, tenants and officials with the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation have called on NYCHA CEO Shola Olatoye to step down.
NYCHA’s infill plan
In spite of a well-publicized deficit in its capital improvement budget, NYCHA officials have thus far downplayed a complicated $100 million allocation from the New York State budget and a long, over-due $3 billion allocation from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for Hurricane Sandy-related repairs. Yet, NYCHA officials have claimed that they need to press forward with the controversial decision to lease open spaces in public housing developments, known as its infill plan, to use those revenues to shore up the agency’s finances, so that NYCHA can, in turn, improve the funding of building maintenance.
In a statement released to Progress Queens, NYCHA officials defended the agency’s priority on its infill plan.
“NYCHA’s financial crisis requires decisive action, and the Authority’s role in creating new affordable housing will help decrease the number of New Yorkers on NYCHA’s waiting list,” a NYCHA spokesperson said, in a statement. Referring to the first of several expected requests for proposals for its infill plan, the spokesperson added that, “Through these RFPs, we’ll develop 10,000 new units of affordable housing on currently-underutilized NYCHA property, bringing housing to low-and-moderate income residents, and further connecting public housing to surrounding communities across our city.”
However, the revenues to be garnered from the initial round of the infill plan will be limited due to the fact that the first three development projects will be constructed to provide 100% affordable housing, meaning the income streams from those developments will not be maximized to generate meaningful revenues for NYCHA, financial constraints predicted by a real estate industry-backed think tank study at New York University. What is more, construction will push the realization of any new revenues years into the future.
The first three developments under NYCHA’s infill plan are being proposed for a green space in the Raymond V. Ingersoll Houses in Fort Greene, Brooklyn ; on a parking lot of the Van Dyke Houses in Brownsville, Brooklyn ; and on a parking lot of the Mill Brook Houses.
At the Mill Brook Houses, a tenant who would only identify himself as Matt, complained that increasing density on the property would lead to over-crowding, predicting that the loss of the parking lot would lead to hardship for the tenants losing the parking spaces that they have to pay for, forcing them to find street parking.
On a visit Monday afternoon, a reporter counted 22 vehicles parked amongst the 82 places in the Mill Brook Houses parking lot that would be lost to the NYCHA infill plan. Inside the boundary of the parking lot, there were also 22 mature trees, providing shade from the 95° heat that afternoon.
Unresolved questions about the sale of the Section 8 buildings
As the de Blasio administration focuses all of its energy on NYCHA’s infill plan, questions remain about the December 2014 sale of a portfolio of project-based, Section 8 buildings. The sale of the buildings were negotiated in private, involved developers with close ties to the de Blasio administration, and, as reported by Progress Queens, may have involved the making of repairs prior to the real estate closing that the cash-strapped agency has long complained that it could no longer afford to make.
Since neither the city’s Comptroller’s Office nor the city’s Department of Investigation have puiblicly addressed questions of the sale of the Section 8 buildings, there is an impression that the city lacks regulatory oversight when it comes to large real estate transactions involving city real property, a sentiment not lost on some NYCHA tenants.
Speaking of the real estate market pressures creeping into the actions of NYCHA officials, Ms. Bell, the tenant at the Mill Brook Houses, said cynically of NYCHA officials, “They want to do what they want to do.”
Questions about the sale of the Section 8 buildings posed to a press spokesperson of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for New York’s southern district were not answered.
Last January, Preet Bharara, the nation’s top federal prosecutor for New York’s southern district, said during a speech at New York Law School that fighting public corruption and improving public accountability were important to the functioning of our government, saying, in part, of corruption scandals, “… when you have these kinds of examples of conduct and misconduct, over time, it, I think, undermines our faith in our own system and in democracy.”
The sale of the Section 8 buildings was not subjected to the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP process, as required by Section 197-c of the City Charter. The request for proposal document hedges on whether the infill plan will need be subjected to the ULURP process, making provisions only "if applicable."