Strengthening NYCHA and preserving public housing

Mayor de Blasio should use every available tool to strengthen and preserve the 179,000 public housing apartments owned or managed by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). At the least, the City should commit to:

  1. An accelerated repair plan that ensures every resident the dignity of decent living conditions in their homes.
  2. A long-term capital plan to catch up with the multi-billion dollar backlog in major infrastructural improvements.
Below are policy recommendations to help the City achieve those objectives.

NYCHA Funding Strategies

Preservation cannot be accomplished without the operating resources NYCHA needs to adequately maintain public housing, free of the stress of large, structural operating deficits from year to year. And it cannot be accomplished with insufficient capital to rebuild its aging infrastructure. Washington provides nearly all of NYCHA’s funding at present, but it cannot be relied on to provide adequate funds for the foreseeable future. As a result, it is up to the City and the State to see that NYCHA has the resources it needs.

There are several ways this can be accomplished:

1. NYCHA must retain all the operating resources it receives from HUD and resident rent payments. The Authority is required to pay the City over $100 million annually, draining its limited operating resources and reserves, contributing substantially to its structural deficit.
  • The Mayor should terminate the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) under which NYCHA is now required to pay over $70 million annually for “special police services.” Under Operation Clean Halls, the NYPD provides similar services to private landlords free of charge. Residents should not be taxed twice for the municipal services they require. To his credit, the Mayor has already acted to relieve NYCHA of this year’s NYPD payment, but the obligation should be permanently ended.
  • The Mayor should exempt NYCHA from further PILOT payments (in lieu of property taxes) now amounting to $29 million annually. Many nonprofit housing providers and institutions are already exempted from any property taxes.
2. NYCHA must maximize the cost-effectiveness of its operating resources through strategic management reforms that produce cost-savings and improve services. An internal review should identify where management reforms can best maximize efficiency and eliminate waste. To reduce soaring utility costs, an energy management and efficiency plan should explore options for improving energy operation and usage, including co-generation systems that can generate revenues by servicing the surrounding community. Discussions with unions should identify where adjustments in work rules and rates can improve performance.

3. The Mayor should press New York State to increase the public assistance shelter allowance. About one out of six (17%) of NYCHA households receive some income through public assistance. The shelter allowance portion of the public assistance payment has not been increased since 2003—when it was set at $ 400 monthly for a 3-person household—despite the soaring rents that have followed since. In 2007, when the State acted to end discounted shelter allowances paid to NYCHA, the result was an increase in NYCHA’s rental revenue stream of about $ 47 million annually.

4. The Mayor should prepare a Ten-Year Capital Plan committing City capital funds to major infrastructural improvements in NYCHA buildings. With a current capital improvement backlog estimated at $7 to 10 billion, and the prospect of only about $2.5 billion in HUD capital subsidies over the next 10 years, NYCHA must rely on City initiative to commit the capital necessary to restore and preserve NYCHA’s aging buildings. One such source would be a dedicated revenue stream from ongoing Battery Park City excess revenues, which were intended for rehabilitating and developing affordable housing in other neighborhoods. The Mayor should also be a strong advocate for emerging opportunities to draw down capital funds from the State and from federal trust funds, which can be incorporated into the planned capital budget.

NYCHA Community Development Options

Land available in NYCHA communities, which is increasingly scarce elsewhere, can be a major potential resource for fulfilling the Mayor’s affordable housing plan—but only if there is a community consensus on how its planned future is shaped. Experience under the recent NYCHA Infill/Land-Lease Initiative has been negative. The Mayor has done well to scrap plans that have been submitted to date and go back to the drawing boards. Any future plans for redevelopment in NYCHA communities must respect the following principles:
  1. Effective community engagement must be part of the planning process from the start, to decide whether and how development will proceed in the community. Affected NYCHA resident organizations, community boards, and other key stakeholders must be included in planning the community’s future. The Mayor’s preservation plan should innovate an effective model for community engagement, one that can serve as a model for other cities. (Lessons learned from Participatory Budgeting NYC could be informative here both for planning a process and for allowing residents to engage more deeply.)
  2. NYCHA must comply with ULURP, the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. ULURP is the prevailing City standard for community review of development plans. It must be observed so that the affected community has a clear voice in the process.
  3. Residential development in NYCHA communities must, to the maximum extent feasible, be affordable to low-income New Yorkers (within twice the federal poverty level) and it must offer on-site NYCHA residents priority access to new units. Many resident leaders have spoken to the particular needs of senior residents. Providing them with new apartments within the community could also open up a good many under-occupied NYCHA apartments, making them available to larger, overcrowded households and to disabled residents as well. Disabled residents could be provided with new apartments that are more accessible (on lower floors).
  4. Where the community sees fit, appropriate zoning strategies should be considered to protect NYCHA communities and residents from unwanted development. For example, special preservation zones have been used in the past to help preserve the fabric of existing developments.

NYCHA Transparency and Accountability

NYCHA residents have experienced abysmal living conditions for too long, as the Authority’s operating budget and workforce have shrunk under deficit pressures. Part of the problem has been the Authority’s control over how its finances are presented for public deliberation—for instance, NYCHA was running large operating deficits since 2001 before it made them public in 2006. Another large part of the problem is NYCHA’s insulation from the regulations, procedures, and rights that help protect tenants from condition deficiencies in multiple dwellings outside of public housing. In that regard, NYCHA is a world unto itself. What is known of NYCHA repairs, its responses to resident complaints is what the Authority chooses to include in press releases. Several steps need to be taken to make NYCHA more transparent and accountable, so that government action can be more responsive to the Authority’s actual financial condition and to deficient physical conditions that residents face daily.

  1. An independent, annual audit and analysis of NYCHA’s financial condition should be publicly available prior to Council budget deliberations each year. City Council does well with the information it receives from NYCHA and from its staff, but much more needs to be done to provide an unbiased, reliable, consistent analysis from year to year.
  2. An independent, annual management audit of NYCHA living conditions and repair activity should be publicly available prior to Council budget deliberations each year. Other than NYCHA press releases, it is difficult to obtain accurate, reliable, unbiased information about outstanding deficiencies and the Authority’s efforts to address them.
  3. An independent “repair watch” should be developed to allow residents and the public to track NYCHA progress in making repairs. In 2013, then Public Advocate Bill de Blasio created an on-site resource for monitoring repairs. Perhaps that should be an ongoing task for the current Public Advocate Letitia James.
  4. NYCHA resident complaints should be integrated with the City’s “311” system available to tenants in other multiple dwellings. As things stand, NYCHA residents calling “311” are told to contact the NYCHA Centralized Call Center, where an appointment is made for repairs, often a year or more in advance. As a result, resident complaints are not systematically registered or reported as they are in the 311 system and HPD code enforcement is not alerted. The process is completely internal to NYCHA, allowing serious condition deficiencies to go uninspected and unreported (unless the resident initiates court action.)
  5. NYCHA code violations must be included in the data bases maintained by HPD and by the Department of Buildings (DOB). Under an “informal” agreement among the relevant agencies, NYCHA code violations, when they are uncovered, are not recorded by HPD or DOB, thereby insulating NYCHA from the public attention and scrutiny that private landlords receive. NYCHA’s responsibility to its 500,000 residents, whose complaints are now quarantined within the Authority, calls for similar transparency and accountability if inadequate living conditions are to be fully addressed.

NYCHA Resident Associations

About one third of NYCHA’s 343 developments have no resident association representing them. Existing resident associations are often small in number and weakly organized. If NYCHA is to partner with residents in improving conditions, in exploring community development options, in moving forward on a variety of preservation initiatives, it must have strong, well-informed, well-organized resident partners to work with. We recommend:
  1. NYCHA must see that resident leaders move forward to train, organize, and strengthen their associations. Initiatives should be taken to form and train resident organizations in developments where they don’t exist. The resources for carrying this agenda out are available, if resident leaders make use of TPA (Tenant Participation Activity) funds allocated by HUD since 2003 specifically for that purpose. To date an estimated $17 million in TPA funds remain unexpended, which can be used to contract qualified outside organizations to provide technical and organizing assistance. If TPA funds are not tapped, the City and/or NYCHA should provide the needed support.
  2. NYCHA must encourage resident leaders to participate in the broader community outside NYCHA, where they can find important resources that could increase their strength. Too often NYCHA resident leadership insulates itself, relying primarily on the Authority for needed information and resources. Linkages with community boards, neighborhood housing and service groups, legal and policy advocates, technical assistance providers, as well as liaison with local elected officials, can be important sources of advice and outside support for resident agendas.