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

The New York City Housing Authority plays a critical role in supplying affordable, decent and safe housing for nearly half a million low-income New Yorkers.  But the day-to-day challenges of delivering on that promise – and crises that suggest an uncertain future – too often leave public housing residents with the lowest of expectations of management and leadership.

In short, NYCHA has a trust problem.  The leaky roofs, busted elevators, scandal, mismanagement and coronavirus infections took a horrible toll in recent years on public housing residents, as well as muddied both NYCHA’s and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s role in New York City.  

Something must be done to counter deep-seated apprehension by residents about privatization, evictions, the growing $40 billion backlog of repairs and the prospect of unrelenting squalid living conditions. These valid concerns won’t magically disappear without a big dose of openness that promotes a customer-centric culture by city’s biggest landlord.

Let’s begin by giving NYCHA residents a role in the search for a replacement for NYCHA Chairman Gregory Russ, who resigned last week after roughly three and a half years. 

Last September, following an arsenic contamination water scare at Manhattan’s Jacob Riis Houses, Mayor Eric Adams appointed Lisa Bova-Hiatt, the housing authority’s general counsel, as interim CEO. Prior to that, Russ served as both NYCHA Chair and CEO in keeping with tradition at the authority.   

To his credit, Russ responded to NYCHA’s growing capital needs with a plan to preserve at least 25,000 units and keep public management through the “Preservation Trust.” 

Most importantly, under the Trust Law, residents for the first time are being empowered with the ability to shape what preservation looks like at their developments. The Community Service Society polled NYCHA residents on which of the three options they preferred – RAD-PACT, Preservation Trust or Section 9 housing. In response, the largest portion NYCHA residents — “two out of five” — said they lacked the information needed to register a preference. 

However, of those residents surveyed who cited a preference, 78 percent preferred the new renovation programs  – either through RAD-PACT or the Trust – instead of the status quo.  That’s noteworthy, even though, not surprisingly, residents’ choice was driven by desperation for better living conditions.

The search for Russ’ replacement is a wonderful opportunity to further engage NYCHA residents, who comprise one of 16 New Yorkers. The question is what should be the mechanism for giving residents a role in the choice? Giving a role to the Citywide Council of Presidents (CCOP) – a federally-recognized body that represents all NYCHA residents — makes the most sense. At the very least, CCOP should be able to interview and register its preference for candidates under consideration.

For too long, the needs of NYCHA residents have been pushed to the back of the line. Case in point: public housing residents applied for at least $130 million of the state’s now-depleted pandemic rent relief funds last year, but received none. As a result, thousands of NYCHA residents are facing an alarming $454 million in rental arrears. Our city, state and federal representatives cannot let this stand.  

What is more, NYCHA has repeatedly missed its targets for Section 3, which requires at least 30 percent of workers hired to be low-income local residents, with public housing tenants getting priority. That costs NYCHA residents badly needed jobs, training and wages in the construction trades as the housing agency deals with the backlog of repairs. 

The NYCHA and housing affordability crisis was magnified by the coronavirus pandemic, which unleashed a tsunami of renters and mortgage defaulters facing eviction or foreclosure. They tended to be disproportionately low-income and people of color with a greater probability of being unable to pay their housing costs during the pandemic.  

New York City is not alone. The cries for help are still coming from red states, blue states, big cities, and small towns.  At last week’s U.S. Conference of Mayors’ winter meeting, mayors from across the country vented about their struggles to address housing affordability and increased homelessness. 

The problem has disproportionately impacted people of color.  Nationwide, half of Black renters spent more than 30 percent of their income on housing last year, the typical threshold at which experts say costs begin to crowd out other necessities, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR).  Almost three out of 10 Black renter households (28 percent) and one in five White renter households (20 percent) are severely cost-burdened – defined as spending more than half of monthly income on rent, NAR said.

NYCHA is essentially the last resort for safe and adequate housing in New York City, one of the nation’s most expensive markets.  NYCHA’s units are a critical part of the safety net, an alternative to house-poor and working class families otherwise forced onto the streets. 

The best low-income housing ensures that tenants are ingrained in the process and part of the conversation. Everyone involved could benefit from seriously listening to and engaging public housing residents who are most at risk if NYCHA fails to deliver.

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 175 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.

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1 Comment

  1. As an NYCHA resident, I’m still waiting for the gerrymandering to end. The shuffling of papers, resignations and other delays are alarming. There are elected officials that do not come to NYCHA properties once the election is over. When will NYCHA residents qualify for decent living conditions? I don’t mean verbal answers; I need physical results.

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