URBAN AGENDA: Forcing NYCHA Out of the Dark

David R. Jones, Esq., President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York | 12/14/2017, midnight
At a recent hearing, City Council Members criticized NYCHA Chair Shola Olatoye for not making the agency’s lapses in inspecting ...
Polo Grounds Houses in Harlem (NYCHA) Google Earth

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.