Community Service Society (CSS) At Oversight Hearings on
Property Management at NYCHA
NY City Council Committee on Public Housing
April 24th, 2018
For over 20 years, the Community Service Society (CSS) has been providing technical assistance and policy guidance to NYCHA residents and their advocates. After years of resident outcries about worsening conditions, our 2014 report—Strengthening New York City’s Public Housing: Directions for Change—was the first to systematically track the accelerated deterioration residents were experiencing since 1999 and identify government disinvestment—at every level of government—as a root cause of the problems facing the authority.
At the same time, NYCHA’s failings at basic property management have become increasingly clear. For some time, I have heard mounting resident complaints and criticisms from management consultants and real estate experts, but nothing as startling as recent disclosures of NYCHA’s failure since 2013 to conduct required inspections for toxic lead paint risks and its widespread failure to maintain basic boiler operations during this past harsh winter. This is a far cry from the “public housing that worked” for which NYCHA was noted for most of its 80+ years.
For that reason, this hearing is very timely. Although I am not expert at large-scale real estate management, I thought it would be helpful to point to some promising directions that should be seriously considered for improving the quality of NYCHA property management:
Decentralize On-Site Property Management
In 2012 the Boston Consulting Group conducted a $10 million assessment of NYCHA’s central support functions. One of its major criticisms was of its multi-tiered management system—headquarters, borough-level, and development-level—an inefficient chain of review and approvals that delayed procurement and on-site responses to repair needs. In 2015 NYCHA moved in that direction with the OPMOM (NextGen Operations) demonstration in 18 developments, under which on-site superintendents were granted more autonomy to purchase standard equipment and made responsible for developing their own budgets. This innovative demonstration should be given serious consideration for citywide implementation. To do so would require comprehensive training of all on-site superintendents.
Centralize Critical Technical Operations
At the same time, certain technical management operations will require central control and implementation to assure across-the-board compliance with requirements at each development. Current examples would include maintaining or contracting a central pool of skilled technicians to conduct annual boiler inspections and make the necessary repairs. Similarly, a central pool of qualified personnel should be available to make annual lead-paint inspections and implement remediation as necessary.
Stagger Management Shifts
At most NYCHA developments, on-site management are available only between the hours of 8 am and 4:30 pm, making it difficult for the many residents with normal working hours to be present for repair appointments without losing worktime. To correct the problem, in 2016 NYCHA launched the FlexOps demonstration, after much controversy with the union, instituting staggered shifts that provided management coverage from 6 am to 8 pm in selected developments. The innovative FlexOps demonstration should be given serious consideration for citywide implementation.
Include NYCHA Residents in the City’s Local Code Enforcement System
Any tenant in a private multiple dwelling can call the 311 Citizen Service Center to register a housing complaint. The complaint—its date, location, and nature—is recorded and referred to the NYC Department of Housing Preservation (HPD) code enforcement for appropriate follow-up and, as necessary, an inspection. However, a NYCHA resident dialing 311 is automatically referred to the authority’s internal Centralized Call Center—which alerts the on-site manager and, as appropriate, schedules an appointment for repairs. No record of the complaint is made outside NYCHA; much is left to the discretion of the manager. There is no independent inspection that residents can bring to bear on NYCHA or at the Housing Court. What happens in NYCHA stays in NYCHA. As a result there are no external records of complaints and outstanding violations that can be used to assess NYCHA conditions and management responses. In that important sense, NYCHA is opaque. We recommend that NYCHA residents be given access to the 311 Citizen Service Center and follow-through local code enforcement.
Make NYCHA Conditions Transparent—Remove Its Exemption from Public Data Bases
Similarly, any tenant in a private multiple dwelling can go to the public websites of HPD and the Department of Buildings (DOB), enter his/her address, and obtain a record of past code violations and whether and when they were cured. If a NYCHA resident enters an address, he/she will find no record in these data bases. For some time, under a prevailing “gentlemen’s agreement”, NYCHA has enjoyed an exemption from these open records. Greater NYCHA transparency will increase its chances of claiming the capital it needs to address its aging infrastructure. It shouldn’t take a sudden field visit from the Governor or a law suit to expose what needs to be done to restore decent living conditions. We recommend that NYCHA apartments and buildings be included in the public data bases maintained by HPD and DOB.
Support a Resident Oversight Entity
NYCHA resident leadership have long been thought of as a “sleeping giant”, a mute constituency with the potential power of a half-million residents, even as they struggle with accelerating deterioration. I am pleased to say the giant is now stirring, indeed it is aroused. To its credit, the Citywide Council of Presidents (CCOP) recently brought suit against the authority for its management failures. Closer federal and local monitoring are in sight, as well as a Resident Oversight Entity through which resident leaders can monitor and influence ongoing property management reforms and other changes. But there are obstacles: Resident leadership turns over in time, as a result of losses and new elections. The leaders—tenant association presidents—have limited time, energies, and they bring differing skills. A Resident Oversight body needs to maintain its continuity and capacity over time if it is to be effective. For that purpose, we recommend the Resident Oversight Entity be provided with ongoing staff support, independent of NYCHA, to enable it to carry out its information-gathering and monitoring functions effectively and maintain communications with external advocates and stakeholders. Some portion of available TPA (Tenant Participation Activity) Funds should be set aside for this purpose.
Call for a NYCHA Plan to Reform Its Property/Housing Management Functions
We urge City Council to call for a long-term NYCHA plan for reform of its property management operations. At a minimum, the plan should assure that the authority will comply with local health and housing codes and with federal requirements.