NYCHA: A Hard Ship to Turn Around

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

Among the city’s bureaucracies, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) is known as a hard ship to turn around. No one knows that better than NYCHA’s Chair and CEO, Shola Olatoye, who is steering the financially-troubled housing authority through turbulent waters these days.

The nation’s largest provider of public housing with more than a half million residents continues to struggle under the weight of more than a decade of starvation funding at the federal, state and city level. With annual operating deficits just short of $100 million and a backlog of nearly $17 billion in needed capital improvements, the NYCHA Chair has the daunting task of trying to put the authority’s financial house in order and stem further deterioration of its housing stock, all despite uncertain funding.

Mayor de Blasio has also charged her with re-engaging alienated residents, frustrated and angry after years of neglect and accelerating deterioration. That includes convincing them that her plan to use NYCHA land for mixed-income private residential development will generate needed revenue to keep the authority economically viable and will not, as residents fear, hasten gentrification and the privatizing of public housing.

Living conditions that invoke comparison to Third World Countries

It’s a tough sell. Made harder by the fact that both the mayor and the governor have pledged to spend billions of dollars to build affordable housing in the city. Residents have to wonder, if there are billions available to create and preserve affordable housing in the private sector, why isn’t there a parallel commitment to sustain and upgrade the city’s single greatest affordable housing resource?  

Now we learn that living conditions in NYCHA housing – which have invoked comparisons to Third World countries -- have been the subject of a year-long investigation by the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Specifically, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office is investigating health and safety conditions at NYCHA to determine if housing officials filed false claims about maintenance conditions in exchange for federal funds.

Mr. Bharara has earned a reputation for aggressive investigations and successful prosecutions of fraud and public corruption. That his office is probing NYCHA is not reassuring. That said, if the investigation helps bring residents relief from the abysmal living conditions that prevail in public housing as a result of decades of government neglect -- most notably at the federal level -- then I welcome it. 

But lest anyone forgets, the problems of toxic mold, leaky pipes, peeling and cracking paint, insect and rodent infestation – which are presumably part of the U.S. Attorney’s investigation – are longstanding.  They did not crop up overnight. Years of neglect and shortchanging public housing and its residents more than $2 billion in funding over the past 15 years helped produce them.

In 1998, Gov. Pataki ended operating subsidies to state-financed public housing, leaving NYCHA with 15 state developments and, an operating shortfall of $60 million annually. The cumulative shortfall amounted to $720 million by 2010. Yet, despite NYCHA’s financial straits, Governor Cuomo’s Executive Budget contains not one cent for public housing. Zero. The Assembly Budget calls for $500 million over five years ($100 million per year), and the Senate Democrats have proposed $150 million for the upcoming fiscal year.

Even under these funding levels NYCHA will continue to fall behind in addressing critical infrastructure needs that jeopardize the health of residents. Absent sufficient capital funds, some buildings may have to be vacated. Others may be converted to private, affordable housing to bring in outside capital for major improvements.  

That’s why residents along with CSS and other advocates are calling on the state to commit $2.5 billion in state funds over the next five years to fund roof replacements, facade reconstructions and other important capital improvements. Additionally, we’re calling on the mayor to support dedicating $400 million in Battery Park City excess revenues to NYCHA capital needs (the governor and NYC comptroller are already in support).

Longer maintenance hours at 12 NYCHA sites

Meanwhile, the NYCHA Chair deserves credit for instituting major management reforms at NYCHA. Earlier this week the authority announced that starting in April it is expanding maintenance hours at 12 developments as part of a pilot program to improve on-site management response to resident complaints and repair needs. Under the “FlexOps” pilot, instead of working 8am to 4:30pm shifts weekdays, maintenance crews will work in staggered shifts from 6am to 8pm daily, with hours on weekends.

The Teamsters, which represents NYCHA workers, is not pleased with the new program which they consider a violation of the collective bargaining agreement signed by the city. I support unions, but the new shifts represent a long-overdue effort to be more responsive to resident repairs and other maintenance needs. Rather than resist the changes, we urge the union to work with NYCHA to provide more coverage and better service for residents – the type of service they deserve.

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