St. Nicholas Houses/NYCHA (263409)
Credit: Bill Moore photo

The New York City Housing Authority received a long overdue payday this week as the city reached a $2 billion settlement with the federal government to repair the city’s crumbling public housing.

Monday, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Geoffrey S. Berman, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and others announced the simultaneous filing of a complaint against NYCHA and a proposed settlement agreement in the form of a consent decree.

The federal government alleges that NYCHA constantly violates basic federal health and safety regulations, including regulations to protect children from lead paint and other safety and sanitary violations.

The federal government is now requiring the city to provide $1.2 billion of additional capital funding to NYCHA over the next five years and $200 million every year after until all of the problems are fixed. There will also be a federal monitor over NYCHA for the next 10 years.

“NYCHA’s failure to provide decent, safe and sanitary housing is simply unacceptable, and illegal,” Berman said. “Children must be protected from toxic lead paint, apartments must be free of mold and pest infestations and developments must provide adequate heat in winter and elevator service.”

Carson added that the move is “historic” and brings a new era to a culture far too many of NYCHA’s more than 400,000 residents are suffering from.

“New York City and New York State are making an unprecedented commitment to put NYCHA on a new path,” he said. “The cooperation of federal, state and city officials will vastly improve the living conditions for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who call NYCHA home.”

NYCHA admitted to several scathing accusations in the consent decree, including giving staff a list of “Quick Fix Tips” to improve its Public Housing Assessment System inspection scores, leaving 80 percent of NYCHA residents with no heat this winter and not performing required lead paint risk assessment reevaluations since 2010.

Meanwhile at City Hall, Mayor Bill de Blasio was on damage control Monday during a news conference and very red-faced over the federal government’s findings. The mayor called the situation a “pivotal moment” for New York City public housing.

“Even though my colleagues and I here did not create it, it is our job to fix it,” he said. “And I want to be very clear when I ran for this office, I did not run for this office to continue a broken status quo. It will be my sacred mission to fix the reality in public housing and set the stage for additional improvements in the years after I have completed my term in office.”

The mayor also offered an apology to NYCHA residents for his administration’s constant failures and putting them at risk.

“I want to offer a joint apology and you can find out if the other people involved want to be part of it. I think the federal government owes them an apology, recent administrations going back 30 years owe them an apology,” de Blasio said.

NYCHA has gone through roller coaster changes over the past nine months getting to this point.

The saga began in November 2017 when it was revealed that NYCHA not only failed to conduct lead paint safety inspections for four years beginning in 2013 but also lied about it to the federal government. The Department of Investigations said inspections were not done for 55,000 apartments.

A jury later awarded a Bronx mother $57 million after it found that NYCHA was responsible for elevated levels of lead in her daughter’s blood while the two were living in Fort Independence Houses.

During the bone-chilling winter in January, headlines and TV cameras told stories of hundreds of NYCHA residents suffering with no heat or hot water in apartments. De Blasio announced he would invest $200 million to replace boilers.

In March, Gov. Andrew Cuomo got a firsthand look at how bad things were and pledged to invest $250 million in NYCHA. He also declared a state of emergency for the housing authority. Cuomo appointed a state monitor over NYCHA, who reportedly has been rescinded to make way for the federal monitor.

The embattled NYCHA Chairwoman Shola Olatoye finally stepped down in April after four years on the job. She was replaced by interim chair Stanley Brezenoff, 80.

“Today is a dark moment for public trust in government,” said City Council Member Ritchie Torres, who also chairs the Council’s Committee of Oversight and Investigations. “The mismanagement of NYCHA, as well as the attempt by the de Blasio administration to mislead the public about the full nature and extent of that mismanagement, will be remembered as a blight on the legacy of our current mayor and those who came before him.”

While politicians and heads of federal agencies are the ones making major decisions about what happens in NYCHA, it’s the residents who get the end result.

Just last week, members of the organization Community Voices Heard staged a rally outside City Hall with City Council members calling for an annual investment of $1 billion in capital funding for NYCHA.

In a statement, the organization said it was “excited” to learn about the $2.2 billion investment and added that it would help the city economically in the long run. They also said that NYCHA tenants should have a seat at the table when it comes to any oversight.

“This investment can and should act as an economic stimulator that allows New Yorkers to participate in fixing NYCHA’s infrastructure for the next generation for working families,” CVH said. “Oversight of these funds is a critical part of this investment, and we maintain that a resident-led Tenant Oversight Council is the best method to ensure accountability.”

In March, NYCHA tenant leaders told stories about the conditions in public housing and made allegations of mismanagement. When asked about the federal government stepping in, they weren’t very impressed.

“This feels like a slap in the face,” said Frederick Douglass Houses Tenant Association President Carmen Quinones. “We still wanted residents to monitor and oversee the $2.2 billion over the next 10 years and we won’t see anything. There is political warfare between the governor and the mayor but meanwhile people are dying and suffering.”

John Adams Houses Tenant Association President Ronald Topping said that although the federal government’s involvement is a new approach, he’s skeptical because residents have been ignored for decades.

“I’m partially optimistic but not fully,” Topping said. “These things are just said and nothing has actually happened. There’s always an attack on economically challenged people whatever the agenda is.”

Topping added that NYCHA residents in the Bronx are holding a protest march June 23 starting at 11 a.m. at John Adams Houses. Residents and advocates will march through three public housing developments in the South Bronx before holding a rally back at Adams Houses.