With more than 600,000 residents, the New York City Housing Authority or NYCHA is home to one in fifteen New Yorkers. The real number is likely higher due to unreported and unofficial residents. And the problems plaguing NYCHA are no secret.

In 2018, the United States filed a complaint against NYCHA alleging that it failed to provide “decent, safe, and sanitary” housing to its residents. It also alleged corruption, stating that NYCHA “repeatedly misled the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) through false statements and deceptive practices.”

“In fact, living conditions in NYCHA are far from ‘decent, safe, and sanitary,” the government said in its complaint. “Mold grows unchecked at many NYCHA developments, often on a large scale. Across the city, residents are provided inadequate heat in winter, leading to frigid apartment temperatures. Pests and vermin infestations are common, as senior New York City officials have acknowledged, NYCHA ‘has no idea how to handle rates.’ Elevators often fail, leaving elderly or disabled residents trapped in their apartments or sleeping in building lobbies because they cannot return to their homes. Leeks, peeling paint, and other deterioration are commonplace, but go unaddressed.” The repairs are estimated to cost $40 billion dollars.

That year, Mayor Bill Deblasio said he would raise $12.8 billion for repairs and outlined a plan to lease one third of NYCHA units (62,000) to private companies over the next 10 years. This transitions the public housing to Section 8 housing, in which private companies receive tax exemptions for dedicating their units to low-income residents. The Deblasio administration has stated it will continue to mandate that residents pay no more than 30% of their income on rent.

The Deblasio plan, called the Permanent Affordability Commitment Together or PACT, fell under the Obama administration’s 2011 Rental Assistance Demonstration or RAD, which allows housing authorities nationwide to convert their public housing to Section 8 housing operated by private landlords.

“I am fundamentally opposed to the privatization of public housing as an institution,” says city council candidate Rick Echevarria, who grew up in Bushwick’s Hope Gardens development. (Andrew Karpan)

District 37, which encompasses parts of East New York: Bushwick, Brownsville-Ocean Hill, Brownsville, and Cypress Hills, is home to thousands of NYCHA residents. Many of these residents live in scattered-site NYCHA developments, which have been prioritized for RAD conversion over the higher-density tower developments.

For the left-leaning candidates running for City Council in District 37, RAD conversions pose a difficult issue: turnover to private companies offers residents a quick fix for long-overdue repairs, but the conversions are widely seen as a step toward eliminating the institution of public housing.

“This was a situation that was created through systematic divestment from NYCHA, and we need to get in front of it very quickly,” said District 37 city council candidate Sandy Nurse.

“I am fundamentally opposed to the privatization of public housing as an institution,” said another candidate, Rick Echevarria, who grew up in Bushwick’s Hope Gardens development. “It’s intended to be a source of housing for low-income people, something that we sorely lack now. I think the current residents are a very important voice, and shouldn’t be minimized, but they are not the determinative voice or the final voice on this issue, I think government is. We have to be really concerned about our government using RAD conversions as a permanent housing model.”

“My biggest concern lies in the long-term effects of the conversion,” said Chris Durosinmi, a city council candidate who grew up in the Glenmore Plaza development in Brownsville.

“Trust and fears of displacement remain prevalent issues. NYCHA has long eroded the residents’ trust due to ongoing delay of repairs and mismanagement. Now with the advent of RAD and PACT, some renovations may require tenants to move— there are fears that residents will not be able to return to their current apartment, and if so, at their current rate. Additionally, residents are now signing a lease and paying a private entity as opposed to NYCHA with no indication that the incoming entity truly cares for the people they house and not for the money they stand to gain,” he added.

Under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines for RAD, residents’ comments must be incorporated into the application for conversion, but ultimately the decision comes from the top-down and bypasses the city council.

Informing residents of RAD conversion calls she sat in on, Nurse said, “It’s not necessarily presented as a choice. It’s presented as, ‘this is what we’re doing and we want to make sure your needs are heard and you hear from us, and you know that this is not a change in land ownership.”

Durosinmi lamented the lack of tenant voice: “In the short term, residents will be able to receive the long-awaited, essential repairs they need and deserve. Unfortunately however, residents do not have a say.”

Faced with long-overdue repairs, however, the promise of efficient repairs offered by a private entity is appealing to many residents.

“I am absolutely, absolutely in support of this new program,” said a life-long resident of public housing in East New York who has lived there since the ’90s and who wished not to be identified. “As a lifelong resident of NYCHA, I can attest to the improvements, but I can also remember and still live in some of the conditions that desperately need updating.”

From his time in Glenmore Plaza, Durosinmi spoke about the bureaucracy involved in logging complaints to NYCHA, the frequency of lost ticket numbers, and long wait times.

“We have a situation where after decades of defunding NYCHA and not prioritizing it, the conditions have been created of such urgency that the residents of different NYCHA developments are willing to allow different private management companies to run the facilities in exchange for delivering real, tangible condition improvements,” said Durosinmi.

“It’s very hard to argue with people who suddenly have everything repaired in a summer,” said Nurse. “To say like, ‘Hey, how do you feel about a private management company of our public housing,’ and they’re just like ‘Yeah, I don’t know, I have new stuff. Things are now improved, our elevator works.”

“I’m not disappointed in the residents, I lived, I saw firsthand what they lived through, so I can understand how they were willing to convert to RAD,” said Echevarria.

In Hope Gardens, however, which underwent RAD conversion last year, an employee at the development’s community center affirmed the immediacy of the initial repairs but lamented the more bureaucratic process in logging repairs now.

“While NYCHA had its issues, it wasn’t an arduous process in terms of them coming in to do repairs,” he said. “For example, we have a leak right now in one of the rooms, and it’s been well over a week before anyone’s even come inside to see what’s causing the leak, whereas with NYCHA, you put a ticket in, and they’d come within 24 hours.”

However, the remodel of Hope Gardens and other scatter developments is abundantly clear. The buildings look brand new.

“For me coming into that seat, the main goal is going to be, for Hope Gardens, to really make sure that they get everything that was promised,” said Nurse. “I can’t roll back the contract, I can’t roll back what has happened, but I can make sure that the agreements that the tenants came up with and NYCHA came up with with this private management company, that every single term is met and that they’re held accountable for every single dollar, public dollar that they’re getting, and that we have transparency. And the same for Ocean Hill. And I’ll have to work with Glenmore Plaza to really fight back against private management and support those tenants in organizing to prevent that PACT conversion process from being implemented. It’s going to look very different across the district on how to work with these tenant association leaders.”

The burden has been placed largely on the developments’ tenant associations, which already hold immense responsibility in the upkeep of their developments. Headed by long-term residents, associations do everything from help residents through the process of logging complaints for repair to organizing community events.

In his tenure as Vice President of the Glenmore Tenants Association, Durosinmi secured funding from the state senate, state assembly, and city council to make repairs, do large improvement projects like building parks, and organize community events.

“It depends on the tenant leaders, it depends on the tenants themselves,” Nurse said. “There are some tenants in NYCHA who are hosting rallies against blueprints, against RAD conversions, and they’re active. And then there are some that are not. I think when tenants organize and have alignment about what they want or don’t want, there’s more of a chance for them to stop something. As elected officials, it’s a balancing act between telling residents what’s good for them or what’s not good for them, because that’s inappropriate, and making sure that they have all the information available to make their assessment of what’s best for them.”

Top photo credit: Elaine Velie

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