Five Questions for NYCHA

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

NYCHA and its public housing residents have reached a critical turning point. The court is now considering whether to appoint a federal monitor to oversee the authority’s operations for at least the next five years. The monitor would have wide-ranging powers: They include setting priorities for allocating new city and state funds to capital repairs, implementing reforms in NYCHA’s organization and property management operations, and altering standing labor agreements.

Previous NYCHA plans seem about to be changed as the authority faces a $32 billion backlog in needed capital repairs. Whatever reinvestment has been made—close to $4 billion from the city in the last 4 years—has not kept pace with accelerating deterioration. Conditions in NYCHA apartments have worsened over that period.

To generate the revenue it needs, the signs are that NYCHA will increase the production of market-rate rentals at developments targeted for Infill housing. Witness Harborview Terrace on Manhattan’s West Side, where since 2008 residents were promised 226 new units, all affordable. Mayor de Blasio recently proposed adding 537 market-rate apartments to the plan, which would make the building 70 percent market rental/30 percent affordable. (NYCHA’s 2015 NextGeneration Plan called for mixed-income development with at most 50 percent market units.)

NYCHA will also step up the conversion of developments from public housing to public-private ownership, from 16,400 units in the original 2015 plan to a total of 42,400 units within the next decade – more than double the initial target. Nearly a quarter of NYCHA’s 176,000 units will be transferred under long-term leases to public-private partnership, to make an estimated $9 billion of private capital available to restore selected developments. (Housing authorities in San Francisco and Baltimore, among others, are converting most of their public housing inventory.)

In short, NYCHA is about to undergo change, hopefully transformations that will help assure the future of our public housing and restore decent living conditions to its residents. As this process moves forward, there are several questions that need to be considered:

Federal Monitoring an Opportunity?

Despite objections from NYCHA leadership to the pending arrangement, we view the appointment of a federal monitor as a move forward—to commit new city and state capital to critical infrastructure needs, to set priorities for their allocation, to reshape the organization and operation of the authority, and to reform its property management operations to prevent the appalling failures we have seen in recent months. In addition, the monitoring team must include expertise in large-scale housing and property management, particularly in the context of distressed housing authorities.

Should Public Land Be Used for Market-Rate Housing?

Land for housing development is scarce in New York. Construction costs make it difficult to build housing affordable to low-income New Yorkers who need it the most. Since NYCHA land comes at no cost—it is a unique opportunity to cut development costs and build for the lowest incomes. The trade-off is that such deeply income-targeted construction will not generate the revenues NYCHA needs to address its deteriorating infrastructure. A compromise needs to be reached that serves both objectives. We believe the dense 70/30 proposal launched by the mayor at Harborview Terrace errs too much in the wrong direction.

Should Public-Private Conversions Accelerate Without Uniform Resident Rights and Protections?

The rush to convert selected public housing developments to public-private management will help draw the private capital needed to restore decent living conditions for residents. The HUD Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), as implemented by NYCHA, is the “gold standard” for such conversions. Under federal statute and regulation, it provides for ongoing affordability, high rehab standards to meet the 20-year capital need, the resident right to stay without further screening, continued funding of resident associations, and other benefits. Yet not all NYCHA conversions will be carried out under the RAD program. NYCHA must provide uniform RAD-like rights and protections to all residents going through the conversion process.

What Role Should Residents Play in the Monitoring Process?

Resident leaders are seeking a “seat at the table” in the selection of a federal monitor and in the monitoring process itself. Resident oversight is critical if the recent lapses in NYCHA property management are to be openly aired and prevented. The question is what kind of mechanism will do. So far, the federal court has opened itself to resident testimony but not accorded leaders a clear role in the process. More thought needs to be given to a resident oversight mechanism.

Creation of an Independent Commission?

The court and the appointed monitor should consider the creation of an independent commission—independent of NYCHA, of city and state government—charged with assessing options for the long-term sustainability of our public housing and making appropriate recommendations. Such a commission needs to be independent of the bureaucratic self-interest and the political gamesmanship that have brought NYCHA and its residents to the present crisis. No doubt, the federal monitor will be preoccupied with immediate priorities. Such a commission is needed to pursue longer-term objectives and assure the preservation of our public housing for generations to come.

Issues Covered

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