Not even New York City public housing is safe from private developers.
According to a report by the New York Daily News, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) is considering leasing community space and playgrounds at public housing projects for developers to build luxury high-rise apartments in neighborhoods like the Lower East Side, the Upper West Side and the Upper East Side and lower Manhattan as well.
On the Lower East Side alone, five different public housing developments (Baruch, Smith, LaGuardia, Meltzer and Campos Plaza and Houses) are targeted for private development. According to reports, residents wouldn’t be displaced by the construction, but some residents (like those living in Smith Houses) would lose parking lots, a baseball diamond and other current places of leisure. Also, NYCHA would offer developers 99-year leases and build under New York’s “80/20” program, setting aside 20 percent of their apartments for “affordable housing,” which would give private developers tax exemptions. According to the Daily News report, the developers would “locate the luxury apartments so they face away from the projects, with the upscale neighbors given their own entrance on South Street.”
According to NYCHA, this is an “innovative” plan to bring in revenue to the cash-strapped organization.
“This innovative plan to generate hundreds of millions of dollars of value will allow us to re-invest in NYCHA, where we badly need to make up for the devastating decline in congressional funding,” read NYCHA’s statement. “Strategies like this are vital to improving the circumstances of NYCHA’s residents and buildings and ensuring that quality public housing is available to New Yorkers who need it. Since announcing this plan in the fall, we’ve been closely engaged with residents, community leaders and elected officials. We look forward to continuing that outreach.”
Leasing public land for private use is an idea that NYCHA has considered for several years. NYCHA Chairman John Rhea stated last fall that the organization planned on going ahead with the leasing plan in order to narrow the projected $60 million budget gap for this year. A report from five years ago by the Manhattan borough president stated that NYCHA had over 30 million square feet or unused property rights.
Current New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised the NYCHA’s plan last week when he called it a “creative idea.” But Damaris Reyes, executive director of Good Old Lower East Side, doesn’t see the creativity at all. The organizer, who’s been an activist in her area since 1977, spoke with the AmNews about NYCHA’s plan.
“The problem is, at this point NYCHA hasn’t spoken to us as a community as a whole,” said Reyes. “We’re getting bits and pieces from different people. We’re not exactly sure how they expect to use this revenue. We only know bits and pieces.” Reyes told the AmNews that many NYCHA residents believe that this is slippery slope leading to the eventual privatization of public housing. As for the “80/20” plan? “That’s dead in the water to us,” she said. “80/20 is not acceptable.”
Reyes was joined by Valey Jean, of Families United for Racial and Economic Equality, on a conference call with the AmNews. Jean talked about the similarities between the situations in Manhattan and what has already happened in parts of Brooklyn.
“There are some patterns showing up,” Jean said. “Areas like downtown Brooklyn and lower Manhattan are overdeveloped and real estate people are looking for neighborhoods that are ‘up and coming.’ The other thing that’s really telling is that NCYHA says they’re doing this because they have a $60 million budget deficit annually. So why lease the land for 99 years and not take any payments for the first 35? What is the story they’re selling? It makes no sense. If the money is needed now, why are they not planning on taking payments immediately?”
Jean proceeded to mention how much of downtown Brooklyn has changed in terms of luxury apartments and “high-priced” supermarkets, which she said many of the area public housing residents can’t afford. “Our residents are forgotten and now they have to deal with more policing in the neighborhood,” she said. “Are we going to continue to build two cities or making housing equitable?”
While Bloomberg’s on board with NYCHA’s idea, New York City mayoral candidate Bill Thompson is siding with the activists. In a statement, Thompson denounced the idea and explained what he would do with NYCHA if he were mayor.
“NYCHA was created to provide housing to low- and moderate-income New Yorkers, not to play Monopoly with financiers so they can build more high-priced apartments in the city,” said Thompson. “Furthermore, this wrongheaded move comes at a time when more and more poor and working families are being priced out of the city. When I’m mayor, I will use my strong experience in the public and private sectors to lead the way on housing, not dodge accountability by hiding behind NYCHA’s bureaucracy. I will overhaul NYCHA’s board and make the office of the mayor responsible for appointing qualified board members that appreciate the true mission of NYCHA.”
According to Thompson’s people, the mayoral candidate would take direct responsibility for all board appointments and policy set by NYCHA if he became mayor. The board would consist of housing, government and finance experts along with NYCHA residents. It would be a volunteer position.
But right now, activists are volunteering to make sure this development doesn’t get past the consideration stage. And they’re aware of what they’re up against.
“It’s clear what direction the city is going in,” said Reyes. “It’s about building housing for people who make lots of money as we, who live here, lost businesses and supermarkets. People know it and they resent it. They know that these improvements are not about them.
We’re fighting for our livelihood and for the reason that so many people want to come to New York–the culture that the people provide,” said Reyes.