David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

NYCHA is still in critical condition, still short of the $32 billion it needs to restore its aging infrastructure and trying to address the appalling failures in its property management operations uncovered by the U.S Attorney’s Office. But it is entering a period of change and transformation, hopefully a positive one.

Under a HUD-NYC agreement, a federal monitor, Bart Schwartz, has been appointed, to assure the authority rapidly improves basic conditions–toxic lead-paint risks, boiler/heating problems, elevator failures, vermin, and the like—as well as guide reform in the way NYCHA is organized, particularly in its property management operations. The mayor is about to appoint a new NYCHA Chair from a short list prepared by HUD and the Southern District of NY (SDNY). The authority has embarked on a new NYCHA ten-year Plan 2.0, which envisions the conversion of 62,000 units—over a third of its housing—to alternative “public-private” ownership and management, as well as changes in its Infill housing construction plans on NYCHA land. It has already mobilized “weekend blitzes” to reduce the large backlog of repair orders.

Increased capital commitments are also forthcoming: The city will spend an additional $2.2 billion toward a decade-long effort to repair NYCHA’s 176,000 apartments. Gov. Cuomo, critical of NYCHA’s former management, has finally agreed to release the $450 million appropriation it committed to the effort years ago. Unfortunately, Washington is still standing pat. HUD, despite its interest in federal monitoring, has not added any additional capital dollars to the pot. There is a great deal happening that could be constructive, depending on what directions key decision-makers take. Here are some of the things we’d like to see:

Integrate NYCHA Plan with Mayor’s Affordable Housing Plan

Currently, the two separate plans—the Mayor’s plan and the NYCHA plan—compete for resources, both for city capital commitments and for limited financing resources like Low Income Housing Tax Credits and tax-exempt bond financing. NYCHA has been the loser on both fronts, a factor that may severely limit its capacity to carry out its ambitious conversion plan, its prime source of new capital in the system.

But there are new opportunities: Vicki Been, the newly-appointed Deputy Mayor, has declared NYCHA a top priority. The new NYCHA Chair should take the Deputy Mayor up on that. The Chair will also have more leverage with City Hall than those in the recent past. He or she will be the first Chair who doesn’t serve at the mayor’s pleasure. Under the HUD-City agreement, the Chair may not be removed without the approval of HUD and SDNY, an arrangement that gives the Chair greater leverage and a stronger voice to press City Hall for what NYCHA needs, without running the risk of removal.

Reform Property Management Operations

Both the federal monitor and the new Chair will have a hand in assessing the way NYCHA is organized and shaping the way it operates, particularly when it comes to property management and the handling of repairs and major improvements. The monitor is charged with engaging a consultant to diagnose the authority’s management problems and make recommendations.

Some major changes are already under way. Two innovative demonstration programs that were launched by the prior Chair should be extended to all developments. The staggering of on-site management shifts, to facilitate repairs and extend coverage, has moved forward in a recent agreement between labor and City Hall. The multi-tiered management system—headquarters, borough management, and on-site management—needs to be pared down. An ongoing demonstration that gives greater autonomy to on-site superintendents, assuming they are adequately trained, should be seriously considered.

The new Chair should try to tighten the reins on property managers to assure compliance with federal standards governing decent living conditions. Stronger oversight of property management is needed. Annual evaluations of management are also in order—they are not conducted after the first year of service. Most importantly, resident feedback should be incorporated in these evaluations so that residents and managers treat each other with mutual respect.

A Better Deal from Washington

By themselves, federal monitoring and sensible reforms in NYCHA’s venerable bureaucracy, are not enough to address NYCHA’s aging infrastructure and the deplorable living conditions residents face daily. Even if NYCHA’s Plan 2.0 succeeds, there will still be an $8 billion gap in meeting its $32 billion backlog.

New sources of capital need to be found. Help appears to be on the way. New York’s Congressional Democrats, led by Representative Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn), have proposed “A Better Deal for Public Housing” as part of a $1 trillion national infrastructure initiative. Under the proposal, $70 billion would be allocated public housing, of which NYCHA stands to receive about $20 billion. The proposal is a counterpoint to the Trump administration’s cold-hearted cuts in HUD funding, particularly its attempt to terminate any capital funding of public housing. Hopefully both monitor Schwartz and the new Chair will add their voices to rally Washington support.

Over the near future the stakes are high for public housing, particularly for NYCHA and its residents, and for our city as a whole. Whatever is said of NYCHA, its mission is to help families by providing decent affordable housing and preserving its communities. Failure to preserve it for future generations is not an option.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.