A Crisis of Faith: NYCHA and Tenants’ Rights

The projects. Alternately vilified and glorified in American culture, affordable housing complexes hold a major significance in New York, where controversy and anger that has been simmering for years is now violently bubbling to the surface. This story is complicated, involving input from all levels of U.S. government, from Ben Carson to Andrew Cuomo to Bill de Blasio. Wars of words, grand promises, and billions of dollars swirl around this issue. Meanwhile, the residents of these affordable housing units feel left out and neglected by the government, the media, even by society. These voices need to be heard, and they will not be put on mute. The Citywide Council of Presidents (CCOP), which is made up of tenant leaders from all five boroughs, has brought a lawsuit against the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) for failing to treat apartments with lead paint, not providing heat and hot water to thousands of residents during the winter, and excluding tenants from the decision-process at all levels. Daniel Barber, president of CCOP, said, “We have let other people speak for us for too long. The fight has to come from the residents of public housing.” Fulfilling his words, hundreds of other residents gathered at the steps of City Hall just a day before the writing of this article and demanded better housing conditions and the funding to make repairs. One longtime public housing resident from Brooklyn called on the city to “stop treating [NYCHA tenants] like second-class citizens.” A wide gulf lies between what the government is saying, what the government is doing, and what residents are experiencing every day.

This past winter, New York’s attention was forcibly grabbed by the stories of residents who were sitting in NYCHA apartments without heat or hot water. It was a Sisyphean story at its heart: residents would send in “tickets,” or formal complaints, about the malfunctioning heaters in their buildings, and then maintenance workers would enter and simply shut down the boilers instead of fixing the issue. In Longwood, Stebbins-Hewitt project residents said that complaints about the boiler were ignored until 911 was called about a gas smell in the building.

“We have let other people speak for us for too long. The fight has to come from the residents of public housing.” – Daniel Barber

At the Betances Houses on East 147th, Giselle Gavin, the tenant association leader, said NYCHA technicians claimed the heaters were fixed, but residents still felt sub-zero temperatures as if they had removed the boilers entirely. At the Melrose and Jackson Houses, the boilers all date back to the projects’ initial construction. That was back in 1952. Even when the heat worked, Daniel Barber stated that hot water was inconsistent at best. But those widespread failures were not the only issues that turned the heat up on NYCHA. Another massive scandal was exposed when a federal investigation concluded that high-level NYCHA leadership, including its former chairperson Shola Olatoye, knew that the city’s affordable housing units had not been inspected for lead paint but told the federal government otherwise so that funding tied to lead inspections would continue. Of the 55,000 apartments that should have been checked for lead, 4,200 housed children under the age of 6 whose homes were supposed to be inspected annually. According to residents, NYCHA consistently fails to abate harmful mold growth and repair pipe leaks that cause wall and ceiling damage, while insisting its fixes are working. I corresponded with Daniel Barber via e-mail and when asked about the conditions he has seen in his and other NYCHA apartments, he wrote, “I have seen some terrible things… Rat and insect infestation… mold, collapsed ceilings. You name it, the residents live it. We have had residents using their open ovens to provide heat for their children.”[1] Such examples lay bare the dire straits residents have been in for decades, neglected by NYCHA and by the city.

The blame for the problems that beset NYCHA has been tossed around by politicians like a hot potato, with one main concern at the heart of all their allegations: a lack of money. For its part, NYCHA claims its woes are caused mainly by a lack of funding for capital projects. Their 2018 budget report states that the authority had $17 billion in “unfunded capital needs” and that the cuts in federal spending on NYCHA since 2001 amounted to over $1.4 billion cumulatively. http://www1.nyc.gov/assets/nycha/downloads/pdf/nycha-fy2018-budget-book.pdfIn their report, they were critical of the decrease in funding from the federal and states governments. In 2018, NYCHA has an $8.6 billion budget, with about $3.3 billion in operating expenses and $5.3 billion going toward capital improvements, mostly construction. Funding for NYCHA and its effectiveness in general has also been a source of heated contention between Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio. New York City was never legally obligated to fund the state-chartered housing authority, voluntarily supplementing its funding with millions of city tax revenue.

The blame for the problems that beset NYCHA has been tossed around by politicians like a hot potato, with one main concern at the heart of all their allegations: a lack of money.

But Cuomo changed all that when he signed an executive order authorizing a state monitor to inspect NYCHA buildings and recommend improvements, for which the city must pick up the tab. Mayor de Blasio decried this effort, and while resident leaders have long criticized New York’s mayors for failing to support public housing, he may have a point. An investigation by CityLimits revealed that while the State Comptroller has been claiming massive increases in state funding for NYCHA housing, much of that money is from FEMA for Hurricane Sandy repairs. In fact, the state has sent NYCHA exactly $0 in non-hurricane related money since 2016.

Despite all of this political squabbling and clear lack of investment in NYCHA, Daniel Barber made it clear the authority has no excuse, saying “NYCHA’s biggest failure is its mismanagement… Over the last decade [they have had] $45 billion for capital repairs.” In an interview (posted below) with journalists Jarrett Murphy of CityLimits and Ben Max of Gotham Gazette, Barber claimed that much of the NYCHA money is wasted on inefficiencies in the procurement process, such as paying thousands of dollars extra on tables and chairs for community areas by using a more expensive supplier. In addition, Barber pointed out that the authority often does not take the lowest bidder in contract negotiations for capital improvements, choosing instead to pay more for construction and other projects, which he considers a waste of money. He and Eliezer Hecht, a lawyer for At-Risk Community Services, the legal group that is support CCOP in their lawsuit against NYCHA, also contested some of the city’s efforts to help NYCHA regain funding, especially the NextGeneration Neighborhoods plan. This plan involves leasing empty space in housing authority projects for private developers to construct apartment buildings that are half market-rate and half-affordable. Contracts have been announced for the housing projects on the Upper East Side and in Boerum Hill, over vibrant resident opposition, including from tenant association presidents. Besides the fact that the air of corruption lingers over the whole project, with the developers both being major de Blasio campaign donors set to receive over $10 billion in tax subsidies, Barber and Hecht point out that NYCHA and the residents have very different views on what underutilized property means. One example they gave was of a parking lot management contract given to a parking firm who lost track of whose spot was whose and eventually prevented several residents from parking in the lot, eventually leading to the city claiming that spaces like that lot and even playgrounds were ripe for private development. All of these plans, Barber says, are ways to keep residents locked out of the process for improving their lives. He only brought the lawsuit in the first place so that NYCHA would be forced to comply with regulations and allow CCOP leaders and other residents to have a say in decision-making, which, according to Barber, would have prevented much of this waste, neglect, and abuse.

After reading myriad newspaper and journal articles about NYCHA and affordable housing, I have found more information than I could fit into twice the number of articles I have written. At the end, however I find myself at a loss for words to conclude this whole mess. Instead, I turn to the words of Daniel Barber, who wrote me this about the importance of New York public housing:

“Affordable housing has been around for several decades. Its purpose has always been to [give] people from more disadvantaged backgrounds a chance to work towards a better life for them and their families. I believe this is still a worthwhile goal. I would like to see legislation which takes the management of NYCHA away from [the current leadership] and puts it into a system which includes real decision-making of the residents. The mayor ran his campaign on a ‘Tale of Two Cities.’ New York cannot work if it is 5 boroughs of the wealthy. There must be a place for low-income and middle-income families”.

The CCOP lawsuit is just the start- Barber and his fellow tenants have a long road ahead of them, but they have the will to fight for their homes. All that is needed is a government willing to invest time and energy into resident-led discussions without throwing money away to contractors and political donors. Support for these tenants can only come from sustained political outreach. Let your council members and state senators know NYCHA needs a fix now.

[1] Daniel Barber and Eliezer Hecht, e-mail interview by the author, New York, April 23, 2018.