Time to Press “Reset” Button on NYCHA Infill Plan

David R. Jones

Once the model of how a big city public housing system should be run, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) is now starved for government funds it needs to preserve its aging housing resources. The issue is so critical candidates for mayor turned out for a recent forum on the future of NYCHA communities.

To generate new funds, the Authority proposes leasing land in public housing developments – open space and parking areas – to private developers for the construction of residential towers, largely at high-end market rents under its “Infill” program. Eight Manhattan developments in “prime markets” are now targeted for redevelopment in the first wave—five in the Lower East Side, two in East Harlem, one on the Upper West Side.  NYCHA estimates these 99-year land leases will generate $30 to $50 million annually. 

Given NYCHA’s assets there is real potential to transform and re-invigorate our public housing communities, provided that private redevelopment serves the interests of the community. Regrettably, the Infill approach taken to date by the Authority has done little to instill trust or confidence that the interests of public housing residents will be served. Indeed, NYCHA seems to be in a rush to unload parcels to developers for residential construction.

Transforming Communities

The specter of “privatization” is not an irrational fear for residents, given the wholesale conversion and demolition taking place in Chicago, Atlanta, Newark, and other cities. NYCHA may not be planning to privatize a single public housing unit, but it is engineering changes that will affect the fabric of the community for generations to come.

The Infill approach need not be a threat. Planned properly, it can be viewed as a potential opportunity for the community.  Revenues generated could address the looming backlog of capital improvement needs. Residents could access new, affordable housing and alternative schools. With appropriate zoning changes, private redevelopment could build retail and commercial facilities the community now lacks. Job and training opportunities for residents would open up.  For some local planners, it presents a chance to weave public housing into the fabric of the surrounding community, and reduce the isolation of the “towers in the park” model.

But all that calls for sensitive, long-term planning with the community. It calls for building a consensus on what the future of the community can and should be. 

Why the Rush?

Last January, the eight targeted developments were first leaked in the media, without their prior knowledge.  NYCHA planned to release RFPs (Requests for Proposals) to developers a month later. Outcries from resident leaders, advocates, and affected Community Boards 3, 7, and 11, succeeded in slowing the schedule. The RFPs are now scheduled for release in June, but drafts have not been circulated.

Why the rush?  NYCHA’s long-term, structural deficit will not be solved in the short term or by the current Infill plan alone. To accelerate the land rush, NYCHA has picked sites already zoned residential that can be leased quickly, with a minimum of community consultation. Retail and commercial facilities are virtually excluded from consideration (except at one development) because they would require zoning variances and increased scrutiny by community leaders under the Urban Land Use and Review Process (ULURP).

Instead, NYCHA plans to inject massive residential towers into the eight developments, without much consideration about other community planning concerns. Developers may be hungry for Manhattan land to build on, but there is no excuse for NYCHA’s rush.  It is bad community planning.  Affected resident councils haven’t had time to access available HUD Tenant Participation (TPA) funds to assemble the independent legal and technical assistance teams they need to assess Infill plans and have a voice in shaping them.  The speed with which NYCHA is moving is effectively bulldozing residents into compliance, even as it lulls them with community roundtable presentations. It should come as no surprise that all eight targeted developments are resisting the Infill plan.

Not Acceptable Here in New York City

The loose HUD Section 18 regulations that allowed Chicago and Atlanta to demolish and convert public housing won’t do for New York City.  The City Council has already called on NYCHA to comply with the ULURP process, the “gold standard” here for community consultation.  State legislators have introduced legislation requiring ULURP, which should be broadly supported.

For these reasons, we join those who call on NYCHA to immediately halt its Infill Plan. The transformation of our public housing communities is too serious a matter to be done quickly, without careful planning and dialogue with affected communities. If private redevelopment can offers significant benefits to public housing communities, the Authority must take the time and effort for a thorough, consensual community planning process, one that envisions more balanced, robust, mixed-use communities that NYCHA and its residents can look toward in the coming century.

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