Chelsea Now – Tenants Scrutinize NextGen NYCHA

By Zach Williams, July 15

BY ZACH WILLIAMS | New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) residents said they expect better communication and transparency in the months ahead from authority officials, as they continue to develop strategies to deal with the financial problems of public housing citywide.

About 100 people attended a town hall meeting held at Baruch College (Lexington Ave. & E. 25th St.), where NYCHA tenants asked questions of officials for about two hours on the night of July 14. A similar town hall was held on July 8 at Hunter College in East Harlem. Both events followed the unveiling of “NextGeneration NYCHA,” a plan to move the authority from the brink of fiscal catastrophe to a $230 million budgetary surplus over the next decade. Vital to the plan’s success, officials said, was the participation of residents in the process moving forward, including upcoming focus groups.

The stakes are high considering the importance of public housing for children and seniors as well as the additional tenant protections afforded NYCHA residents who never pay more than 30 percent of their household income, according to Michael Kelly, general manager for the authority. In response to a question, NYCHA officials said that they use gross (rather than net) income to determine housing eligibility per federal requirements.

Some cities such as Atlanta have transformed their public housing to a voucher system, but the intent is to keep NYCHA intact — though it will have to evolve in the coming years in order to cut costs and tackle nearly $17 billion in major capital work among its more than 300 housing developments, Kelly added. Decreased funding from the state and federal governments contributed to a $1 billion shortfall in operating revenues since 2001, according to NYCHA.

“We are really facing a situation where the status quo is just not good enough…80 percent of our 2,600 buildings are more than 40 years old,” said Kelly.

There are currently about 200 backlogged work orders at both Elliot-Chelsea Houses (btw. W. 25th & 27th Sts., Ninth & 10th Aves.) and Fulton Houses (btw. W. 16th & 18th Sts., Ninth & 10th Aves.), according to city Comptroller Scott Stringer, who released an audit on July 13 outlining the state of NYCHA building repairs. There were also nearly 50 outstanding building violations between the two developments, according to Stringer. His report also outlined how technology could boost accountability and transparency at the authority through means similar to those implemented by NYPD.

Plans are underway to streamline communications for residents seeking building repairs, NYCHA officials said on July 14. One strategy is to localize repair management with the goal of fulfilling requests within one week through one telephone call. A smartphone application would provide real time updates on where and when repair personnel are available. Such measures are beginning implementation at some developments this summer, according to a July 12 NYCHA statement announcing the changes. Neither West Side development was mentioned among the first recipients.

Improving service and conducting repairs requires time and difficult decisions due to financial constraints, NYCHA officials added at the town hall. Their tenants expressed vocal opposition to increasing revenues by determining parking fees through comparison with nearby market-rent spaces.

Such a strategy would result in Manhattan public housing residents paying significantly more than NYCHA tenants in the outer boroughs. Though fees would be capped at $150 per month that would still mean that residents of developments such as Fulton Houses and Elliot-Chelsea Houses would have to pay nearly twice for parking than if they lived in a project outside Manhattan. The current average monthly price for a parking space is about $25.

About three percent of NYCHA residents citywide utilize the approximately 11,000 spaces available, according to Karina Totah, senior advisor to the NYCHA chair and one of the eight panelists at the meeting. She added that NYCHA residents who rent the spaces typically have incomes that are nearly 50 percent higher than those who don’t. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer — who organized both town halls — said in an interview that for those who do own a vehicle, a cheap place to park makes a big difference in their ability to make a living.

“A lot of NYCHA residents don’t work in Manhattan. They work in the suburbs. They work in faraway places. They make low incomes and it’s hard to get there by public transportation,” she said.

Residents also expressed skepticism about preliminary plans to transfer ownership of “scattered site” properties to private non-profits. Such properties were acquired by NYCHA when property owners abandoned them decades ago and are typically old tenement buildings rather than the “towers in the park” developments such as Elliot-Chelsea. Brewer interjected during the discussion, stating, “Nonprofits sell buildings.”

Similar concerns about privatization gained prominence earlier this year when NYCHA officials revealed that some properties such as Campos Plaza I in the East Village were only 50 percent owned by the authority which sold the other half as part of a public-private partnership in order to finance building repairs. In recent months, authority officials have slashed millions of dollars from their deficit though they could not state at the July 14 meeting just how those funds were currently being utilized. They added vaguely that they could provide specifics in the near future.

NYCHA officials furthermore did not offer an update on where they might construct additional residential buildings to help accommodate the 13,000 new residential units, which the Next Generation NYCHA plan proposes. Despite the lack of some specifics, state Assemblymember Dick Gottfried, who represents Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen, told Chelsea Now that concerns expressed at the town hall matched what he has heard from constituents. The challenges facing public housing are large but there is reason to be optimistic, he added.

“I think the [NYCHA] management is determined to do a good job. The fact that they are out listening to tenants is important. Now we have to see the follow up,” he said.

A public hearing on NYCHA’s draft annual plan is scheduled for 5:308 p.m. on Tues., Aug. 11 at Pace University’s Schimmel Center for the Arts (3 Spruce St. btw. City Hall Park & the Brooklyn Bridge).

Visit http://www1.nyc.gov/site/nycha/about/nextgen-nycha.page for info on NextGeneration NYCHA. To access Comptroller Stringer’s report, visit comptroller.nyc.gov/reports/audit?r=07-13-15_FK14-102A.