At a recent hearing, City Council Members criticized NYCHA Chair Shola Olatoye for not making the agency’s lapses in inspecting apartments for toxic lead-based paint risks known—to them, to at-risk residents, and to the public—when she uncovered them in 2016. While it is true that she aired the issue with the mayor, with HUD, with U.S. Attorney investigators, and took steps to resume inspections at that time, council members had reason to accuse her of leaving them “in the dark” for over a year, until the city’s Department of Investigation reported that she had falsely certified that the authority was in compliance.
NYCHA’s failure to inspect for lead-based paint risks cannot be condoned. How the authority came to disregard the well-being of residents—particularly the health of at-risk children—is beyond explanation.
But the truth is that we are in the dark about much that goes on within the walls of NYCHA. Not only about the lead-paint inspection gap, but also about a range of core issues like substandard building and apartment conditions, the nature and number of resident complaints, and the extent to which they are resolved. The only way to assure that NYCHA, admittedly struggling with starvation funding from Washington, does its best to carry out its responsibilities to residents is to shed more light on NYCHA’s darker corners.
What Happens in NYCHA, Stays in NYCHA
Despite withering criticism, Mayor de Blasio said he is sticking by the NYCHA Chair. So am I. That said, given the breach of trust in NYCHA’s credibility, we cannot expect the authority to self-police its own compliance. Yet, by recently announcing the creation of an internal Executive Compliance Department, that’s exactly what the authority is proposing. In order for the authority to effectively meet its responsibilities, the monitor must be outside the authority and independent of it.
The same applies to tenant complaints. Consider this: a tenant in a private apartment building can call 311 to register a complaint about substandard conditions in their apartment. The complaint will be dated, recorded and transmitted to the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). An HPD inspection will be conducted as appropriate. Owner violations will be recorded and followed up to see that they are remedied. This is standard housing code enforcement.
But a NYCHA resident who contacts 311 about apartment conditions is turned away and referred to the NYCHA Customer Complaint Center. An on-site housing manager is supposed to inspect the apartment and, as appropriate, set up a work order. This is all internal to NYCHA. There is no external record of the problem or its resolution, and there is no inspection by HPD. What happens in NYCHA stays in NYCHA. That is, in the dark. Although the authority releases selective monthly “metrics” on its overall repair record, the nature of the problems and results of individual complaints stay within the walls of NYCHA. And while integration of NYCHA repair complaints into the 311 system was mentioned as part of the 10-year NextGeneration NYCHA plan, so far there has been no forward movement.
NYCHA, like any landlord, is required by law to comply with New York City housing and building codes. But, unlike private owners of multiple dwellings, NYCHA is exempt from having its housing code violations listed in the public data bases kept by HPD and the Department of Buildings. Tenants of private landlords can type in their building address to get a list of code violations, including whether and when they were remedied. But NYCHA is not included in these databases, so it is impossible to learn the extent to which violations have been addressed or are outstanding.
NYCHA is the largest landlord in New York City. But we are in the dark about its code violations. This simply must change.
Not the Time to Change Leadership
This is a critical period for NYCHA and its residents, as the authority attempts to sustain operations under reduced federal funding and address its $17 billion backlog in major capital improvements. In the best of times, the authority—a city of its own with 176,000 apartments, a population of over 500,000, and a workforce of 11,000 employees—is a hard ship to turn around. It needs a steady hand at the helm. This is no time to be playing musical chairs with its leadership.
Chair Olatoye has ably charted NYCHA’s course over the coming decade in the NextGeneration plan. She has instituted major management reforms: moving to decentralize on-site housing management to better respond to problems, winning hard negotiations with labor to extend housing management shifts to 8am-to-8pm coverage, and modernizing management technology. On learning of the long-standing lapses in lead-based paint inspections, she responded by focusing authority efforts to come into compliance. In my view, Chair Olatoye has shown vital leadership, and deserves the chance to continue to lead NYCHA through this crucial and difficult period.