CSS Calls for Halt to NYCHA Infill Program at Today’s Council Hearing

Victor Bach,
Senior Housing Policy Analyst
Community Service Society

Judith Goldiner
Attorney in Charge,
Civil Law Reform
The Legal Aid Society

Hearing on
City Council Resolution Calling on the State Legislature to Enact
“NYCHA Real Property Public Review Act”
City Council Committee on Public Housing

The Community Service Society and the Legal Aid Society wholeheartedly support the proposed Council Resolution calling on the State Legislature to enact the “NYCHA Real Property Public Review Act”, which requires that any disposition of land or buildings by the Authority be subject to and comply with the provisions of New York City’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP).  ULURP is the prevailing “gold standard” for community review of complex land use proposals that have potentially significant impacts, requiring Community Board review and ultimate approval of the City Planning Commission and the City Council. 

The NYCHA Infill Plan and the Need for ULURP

At present the Infill plan calls for a significant degree of private residential redevelopment on available land leased by NYCHA at eight targeted Manhattan developments —five in the Lower East Side, two in East Harlem, and one in the Upper West Side.  This is just the first wave of an escalating number of Infill initiatives across the boroughs, intended to ameliorate the Authority’s serious financial straits and generate needed revenues to improve and preserve public housing. Large numbers of public housing residents stand to be affected by Infill-type initiatives—residents number over half a million people,  roughly one out of every 16 New Yorkers. 

Current Infill plans do not require NYCHA to comply with ULURP, because the Authority’s proposed private redevelopment initiatives are “as-of-right”, that is do not require zoning changes, or waivers in local/state regulations. Nevertheless, the potential for significant change in the quality of life in the hundreds of communities in which NYCHA developments are located is enormous and, despite the financial pressures on the Authority, such sweeping changes are not acceptable without thorough review and meaningful community engagement in the process, which we believe has been lacking to date. That is why we support the Council Resolution and the pending State legislation.

Calling for a Halt

Considering the haste with which the current NYCHA Infill plans evolved, and the lack of real transparency in the community engagement process, ULURP may not suffice to remedy gaps and faults evident in the Infill proposals from the start.  That is why CSS and the Legal Aid Society are also calling for a halt in the current NYCHA Infill plan—we are asking that NYCHA go back to the drawing boards and start with meaningful community participation from day one as to whether and how an Infill-like strategy of private redevelopment can be a boon to both NYCHA and its communities. Here are our reasons:

Long-term, better NYCHA planning is needed—there is no urgent reason to rush Infill plans forward.

Infill is an attempt to address NYCHA’s serious financial condition.  But the Authority faces a long-term, structural deficit, one that will not be solved in the short term, or by the current plan alone.  It will require more community-sensitive, more comprehensive planning than NYCHA has carried out to date, which primarily designates sites to be leased for private residential construction. There is much more that needs to be considered. Yet NYCHA is scheduled to release its RFPs to developers within weeks.  In short, why the rush?

Alternative sources of revenue also need to be pursued.

Infill may be a valid strategy for revenue generation, but other sources of capital also need to be conscientiously pursued, such as the excess revenues generated by the Battery Park City Authority that were originally intended to be allocated to the preservation and development of affordable low-income housing in other neighborhoods; such as relief from the $100 million in annual payments NYCHA must make to the city, largely for police services ($75 million) and PILOT payments ($23 million). While these options are not within NYCHA’s control, it is unclear that they have been brought to the attention of the officials and agencies with the necessary decision-making powers.

Funds for independent legal and technical assistance to Resident Councils targeted for Infill are not in sight.

This week NYCHA released an RFP under which it would designate a third-party consultant to administer the use and decide on the allocation of TPA (Tenant Participation Activity) funds for this purpose.   The consultant will be responsible for facilitating access to experts and for monitoring the effort. There is no reason why this couldn’t have been done from the start, rather than weeks before NYCHA is scheduled to release its Infill RFPs to developers.  Resident and community leaders have not have adequate opportunity to assemble technical assistance teams that enable them to have an effective voice in these decisions.  Again, why the rush?

Drafts of the Infill RFPs have not been available for community review.

Apart from what NYCHA staff choose to tell concerned community leaders, there has been no opportunity for review of the actual drafts.  In one case, a community center in East Harlem is scheduled for demolition—it is uncertain how the RFP spells out provision for developer responsibility for rebuilding the center and securing temporary relocation without loss of services to the community.  Developers and owners of the new residential structures, we are told, will have to comply with Section 3 or even stronger standards for providing resident access to temporary and permanent job and training opportunities, as a condition of the 99-year lease, but it is unclear whether or how the RFP makes provision for these community benefits.

More comprehensive, mixed-use approaches to participatory community planning are called for, not just making room for private residential redevelopment.

Most importantly, Infill planning to date has been rushed, insensitive to the full range of community needs, and far too narrow in scope.  Plans fall short of prevailing standards for assessing and addressing a range of community benefits and needs that might be included as part of a more fully-realized redevelopment plan.  For one, NYCHA has preferred to plan within prevailing zoning constraints, again in order to accelerate the Infill process. Nearly all the targeted developments are zoned exclusively residential, which precludes retail and commercial development that might benefit the community. Only one Infill plan includes commercial space, at Meltzer Towers.  Yet many NYCHA communities, because of their original design and zoning, may feel the need for better, more accessible, on-site retail and commercial facilities.

There has also been community concern about Infill residential construction plans, particularly the low proportion (20%) of affordable units against market-rent units (80%), which remains unaddressed.  Questions are being raised about “the massing” of the new structures in relation to the existing community. Additionally, with an aging NYCHA population, building housing to accommodate seniors is a priority concern registered at many developments:  It would help reduce the number of currently “underoccupied” public housing units, making them available to larger households, while it allowed older residents to remain in the community.

In the rush to move Infill redevelopment forward, the Authority is not only pressing on with a controversial plan for the target communities.  More importantly, it has overlooked what is needed to create the more balanced, robust, mixed-use community that NYCHA residents may want to see evolve over the foreseeable future. 

As a result, we are recommending bringing the current Infill plan to a halt, and instituting a longer-range, more in-depth, more inclusive assessment of whether and how NYCHA land-leasing and private redevelopment can be a boon to both NYCHA and its communities. ULURP continues to be a vital part of that process and we strongly support the Council resolution.

Thank you. 

The Community Service Society of New York (CSS) is an informed, independent, and unwavering voice for positive action to improve conditions and opportunities for over 3 million low-income New Yorkers.  CSS draws on a 170-year history of excellence in addressing the root causes of economic disparity through research, advocacy, litigation, and innovative program models that strengthen and benefit all New Yorkers.  As part of its housing policy research and advocacy agenda, CSS convenes the NYC Alliance to Preserve Public Housing, a working collaboration of resident leaders, advocates, and concerned elected officials.

The Legal Aid Society (the Society) in New York is the nation’s oldest and largest not-for-profit provider of legal help for vulnerable low-income children and adults.  Operating from 25 locations in New York City with a full-time staff of over 1,700, the Society handles more that 300,000 individual cases and legal matters each year. The Society is counsel on numerous class-action cases concerning the rights of public housing residents and Section 8 tenants and is a founding member of the NYC Alliance to Preserve Public Housing. The Society is currently representing the Resident Association President for Douglass and Baruch Houses, two of the developments facing the Infill proposal.

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