Represent NYC: Council Member Carlina Rivera

August 18, 2019

New York City Housing Authority, commonly referred to as NYCHA, has housed millions of New York residents since it was founded in 1934. Today, it is the largest public housing system in the nation–but is it the best?

Over the past few decades, civilians residing in NYCHA buildings have had an incredible amount of issues. Tenants have become frustrated with the lack of heat during the winter, no running water all year-round, and even lack of maintenance, which has resolved to multiple protests at City Hall. Will tenants finally be heard with Gregory Russ as the new NYCHA Chairman?

Represent NYC, guest-host Carlina Rivera, Council Member for District 2, is joined by Alicka Ampry-Samuel, NYC Council Member and Chair of the Council’s Public Housing Committee; Julian Morales, Director of Organizing at Good Old Lowers East Side (GOLES); and Victor Bach, Senior Housing Policy Analyst at Community Services Society (CSS) to discuss the future of NYCHA under the new Chairman.

Aired August 18th, 2019.


DISCLAIMER:  Please be advised that this transcription was done from an audio recording by an out of house service; therefore the accuracy of the transcript may be impacted.  If there is an issue please contact MNN

Carlina Rivera: Hello and welcome to Represent NYC on the Manhattan Neighborhood Network. Thank you for joining us. I'm Carlina Rivera, New York city council member representing the second district in Manhattan, which includes the neighborhoods of Flat Iron, the East village, Gramercy Park, Rose Hill, Kips Bay, Murray Hill, and the Lower East Side where I was born and raised.

Carlina Rivera: Today we'll be discussing the future of the New York City housing authority, otherwise known as NYCHA, the largest public housing system in the United States. NYCHA has been plagued by under-investment for years and is currently at a crossroads. The agency's new chair, Gregory Russ is expected to begin his chairmanship soon and work continues with a federal monitor who's auditing and investigations have exposed a bureaucracy that is failing Infrastructure culture and direction.

Carlina Rivera: I represent one of the largest NYCHA populations in the city council and just this month my districts, NYCHA developments have seen a crane collapse, watering gas outages and serious sewer issues.

Carlina Rivera: Joining me to discuss this crisis and potential solutions, our council member Alicka Ampry-Samuel the chair of the committee on public housing. Julianne Morales, a housing organizer at Good Old Lower East Side and Victor Bach, senior housing policy analyst at community services society. Thanks everyone for joining me today. Really excited to have you.

Carlina Rivera: Some very, very talented people in the room who have been working on these issues for a very, very long time. So you all heard me mention a construction incident currently at Jacob Reese houses, which is in my district right along the waterfront. But that's just one of many disasters that happens on these campuses.

Carlina Rivera: We have 400000 residents, more or less, too who occupy these homes with heat and hot water deficiencies, gas outages, sanitation challenges. These are all a long list of items that we've been trying to address. And tenant associations, they're trying their best to keep up, but it's difficult and they're frustrated and they're looking for other tactics to make change.

Carlina Rivera: So Alicka in your role of oversight as chair of the committee, what have you seen as most powerful in swaying and solidifying operational improvements?

Alicka Samuel: The most helpful and I think the most powerful thing that we can do as a city is to make sure that the residents have a voice at the table and is to make sure that the residents had the support that they need. And in order to really be, not feel, but for that power to be legitimized.

Alicka Samuel: And I think that's what we have not seen in the past, but now because of all the media attention, because of all of the issues that are plugin NYCHA and its residents. But most importantly because of the lawsuits, right? Sometimes it takes a lawsuit and people to really go out there and do what they're supposed to do. They could have done it before, but now they are mandated to make changes.

Alicka Samuel: And so it's the residents and their voices that are the most powerful and they should be the priority. And we know that they're the ones that know what's happening on the ground. So even what happened in your district, I am pretty sure that you had residents that walked past and said, looked up and said, "There's something wrong with that crane. Someone should do something" or may have complained about the construction site, the current construction workers. Were their voices muted at that time? And so I think the most powerful thing is just the voices of the residents.

Carlina Rivera: And you're absolutely right. I mean, not only do they know what's happening in their own buildings and just locally, the residents are really there for each other. And I'm so glad you are the chair of public housing. You have a personal story.

Carlina Rivera: You have a lot of organizing experience and government experience. And when you look at the leadership and when you look at tenants associations, I also have to mention many of them more often than not are women. A lot of our TA leaders are women. So I think to see someone like you in this role is also important. And knowing that we're seeing a reflection of ourselves when we're organizing.

Carlina Rivera: And so how has and Julianne and Victor have been pretty instrumental in this. So the knowledge, right? The policy tools and giving these residents and understanding of some of these very, very complicated issues. And Julian and I know you have been organizing residents. You're a public housing resident, you were born and raised in Red Hook.

Carlina Rivera: If you can give me a little bit of background as to what you've kind of seen on the ground. You've been organizing some of these tenants to understand not just what their rights are, but how do we proceed in a political climate that we know is very tense and that doesn't really support low income people.

Julian Morales: Right. I mean, right now NYCHA's implementing several strategies to sort of at least they claim to save public housing. And so, I think the biggest thing for us is making sure that residents understand this. Some folks think this could be the beginning of the end, right? We're talking about NYCHA's 2.0 plan, which includes 62000 units of RAD Infill development and also transfer of air rights.

Julian Morales: And so right now it's as critical as ever for residents to get involved with their local resident association, with community organizations like us, elected officials or community to make sure that they are well-informed and start thinking about being proactive rather than reactionary. And so there are groups across the city that we're working with to save, maintain and improve public housing. And so we want to figure out how to get more residents to the forefront. I really appreciate what you talked about for us. We believe that residents already have the power and so we want to make sure that we uplift them and have their voices be heard.

Carlina Rivera: Thank you. That's so important. And for our viewers, the mayor's 2.0 plan involves a three prong strategy to bring in more than $20 billion in revenue that can be put towards the backlog of repairs. The first part of the plan is to use HUD section eight programs to convert 62000 units over a third of NYCHA's housing to private ownership and management. Victor, what exactly does this mean for residents?

Victor Bach: Well, we've put together a resident handbook to try to inform residents about what it might mean and so that they can make a decision as to whether they're interested in it or not. It's it really should be up to them rather than just NYCHA as well. And it means, I think primarily that if a resident's had to wait for Washington to come through, it might be decades if ever, for their developments to be improved to decent living conditions under RAD.

Victor Bach: One of the major benefits is that that's going to happen after within two years. It does mean a degree of privatization, what NYCHA likes to call public private partnerships shift to private management and the like. And there are a lot of trade offs, but if basic conditions are the key issue for residents, this is one option they should seriously consider for getting the necessary improvements made.

Alicka Samuel: The only thing that I would say about the RAD situation is we have to really look at what kind of funding this will mean for the newer developments. Because right now we are using what happened with like Ocean Bay in far Rockaway as an example or a model, but that came with so much money from FEMA and from hurricane Sandy and the money that's going to be used for the upcoming RAD and PAT deals will not have that same level of funding. And so I'm just curious as to how that will play out because it's totally different.

Victor Bach: Under the program, under federal law it's required that the development be rehabilitated to meet the 20-year capital need. So there are federal standards that are enacted in the law that require the improvements up to that level. And that's sort of the gold standard is at the moment as far as we're concerned.

Victor Bach: So it's not as if RAD will mean the conversion of units with whatever funds are available. There are clear standards for what has to be done within a two-year period. So it is a way to expedite those kinds of repairs. Obviously, by bringing in private capital, private investment, that's the trade off and technically leaving the public housing inventory. But it is a way to get your conditions rapidly improved.

Julian Morales: If I just may really quickly.

Victor Bach: Yeah, please.

Julian Morales: This RAD program as Vic and I know, there's many different ways this may go, right? We're talking about section 18 disposition. We're talking about all types of different models that it could be funded. So that's critical for folks to know. But just to piggyback on RAD itself. I think NYCHA is pushing these, these proposals, whether it be Infill or RAD and we've seen lots of push back in their communities and that's because residents are not at the table, right?

Julian Morales: And also at Ocean Bay these policies are taking very long to come to fruition. We need policies that are going move the needle as soon as possible. Cause in 20 more years we're going to have a larger deficit. So how do we think about generating revenue that's enough to save it and maintain it for the long haul.

Alicka Samuel: And also be careful about the unintended consequences that we always hear. Because you also mentioned, part of the NYCHA 2.0 includes transfer of air rights. And we see the battle that's happening down in Brooklyn and Ingersoll houses because the city is wanting to just push the process along without having a conversation with the residents.

Alicka Samuel: They try to make sure that this was on the agenda for the last board meeting without resident input and they wanted to waive the environmental impact study, environmental study because there could be some issues with the air quality around this development and this storage facility, and transfer of air rights in the area. So again, we have to make sure that the residents are at the table.

Victor Bach: That's a crucial issue. Right now NYCHA comes to a development, knocks on the door with a plan and tenants can resist or agree or whatever, but it doesn't make any difference. NYCHA intends to move forward on the conversion front. The conversions will generate 10 to $12 billion of revenue NYCHA projects over the next 10 years. That's the major contributor to revenues that are needed.

Victor Bach: So clearly conversion, some conversions are in the picture, but you have to bring in residents from the start, not only when NYCHA announces a plan, but when options are being considered and you need to educate them about the options. And I think more will happen with more resident cooperation if we start jointly planning with residents from the start rather than knocking on their doors with a plan.

Julian Morales: Right and you just not consultation or real community engagement. We have seen at Homes Towers and at Cooper Park people questioning that because they just felt like so left out of the process.

Victor Bach: In London by the way, they've done a lot of conversions and they require not only resident involvement from the start, but they require majority approval by a systematic ballot and yet they've been able to carry them out. It takes a little longer to do that, but I think it's well worth the effort.

Carlina Rivera: So, and I'm going to ask you about other public housing systems kind of in the nation and honestly internationally in a minute. But before we started taping, we were discussing this land use process, right? And how a lot of it that happens on NYCHA land really does not take the residents' voices in an official way. There could be resistance, there could be protests.

Carlina Rivera: We always encourage the media to comment and document what is happening. And of course the organizing is so critical. So normally developers, when they have a project in front of the city council for example, they have to go through a very specific land use process, which in which includes steps at the community board at the borough president, at city planning commission and then of course with the city council. And that is not the same case for these developments.

Carlina Rivera: And we know that they do have the potential to generate much needed revenue. But where our resident and advocate voices during the development planning and what can we do to also lobby our state electives, not just for more money because I do think the state also has to put in a lot more cash, but also to try to get that same transparency to some of these land use developments.

Alicka Samuel: Well, I have to Infill deals in my district on the same NYCHA campus. Two buildings on Van Dyke houses on two parking lots that the residents were totally against and they were not included at all in the process.

Alicka Samuel: And in fact this had nothing to do with revenue. This was only to be able to increase the affordable housing units under the mayor's plan for more affordable housing units in the very dense community. And so I'll just leave that right there.

Victor Bach: Obviously, we need to try to get more state investment and reinvestment in public housing here in New York City and the rest of the state. But I think also much can be done at the local level setting aside Washington. I think one idea is to integrate the mayor's of affordable housing plan with the NYCHA plan as part of the preservation agenda.

Victor Bach: As you know, the mayor's plan has a commitment of $13 billion in capital to private affordable housing and NYCHA's plan was kept separate. It came out a year later and I think it's important to think about how those plans can be integrated. So that NYCHA has some similar resources with which to undertake preservation. Right now they're competing with the mayor's plan.

Julian Morales: Right, right. It's interesting to see that there's a housing plan. There was a housing plan that didn't include the largest affordable housing almost anywhere and especially here in New York City. But in regards to ULIP, I mean, right. A lot of public housing was built with the tower and the park models, there's a lot of open space, right? And so it allows them to go through the process without having to go through the land use process.

Julian Morales: And so, we've been pushing since, as you know, in 2013 when the Bloomberg administration wanted to put these buildings for ULIP for NYCHA. And so we're starting to build momentum around some bills at the assembly and at the Senate with [inaudible 00:15:49] to push for ULIP for NYCHA and we're working with groups of all across the city to make sure that that happens in 2020.

Carlina Rivera: So I mentioned Gregory Russ is going to start soon. He hasn't yet. We know he'll be spending the weekday in the city and weekends back home. And he's going to be receiving a very good salary for this work. What do you think are some of his priorities on day one?

Victor Bach: Well, I think for one, he comes to the city with, he is a public housing pro clearly, but he comes to the city with an unfortunate reputation as the czar of privatization in Cambridge and in Minneapolis. And I think one of the things he could do certainly to the conversion program is what we've been talking about. Democratize it, get residents involved in the decision process from the start. That would help.

Victor Bach: Obviously, he needs to take a good look at the property management operations at NYCHA, which was the cause of the suit that the southern district brought and there are reforms badly needed. There was a $10 million study in 2010 and the monitor has contracted a new mega study of NYCHA organization asking for recommendations. He needs to pay attention to that, particularly for immediate repairs.

Alicka Samuel: I would say the first thing is to actually take a look at NYCHA properties because he has not been here and has not toured NYCHA properties. And I just felt that was a little disappointing that our incoming chair has not been here to even know. Because people talk all the time about what would an apartment looks like. And it's a total shock for most who have not been in the NYCHA building.

Alicka Samuel: It's a shocker and so you have a different lens in a different opinion once you're actually there. And so I don't think he can have much of a plan right now until he actually visits a NYCHA development. And I had the opportunity to speak to him last week and he said his top priority will be to come in and take a look at management in the organizational structure and then just meeting with the residents.

Julian Morales: I mean we talked a little about this before. I mean there's a laundry list, right? Quite frankly, but I think starting with making quality repairs, talking with residents, organizations and electives to figure out how to effectively, expeditiously and creating sustainable strategies to maintain, improve and preserve NYCHA for the long haul.

Carlina Rivera: He definitely has a lot of, I think perspective that he can kind of reach. There are so many people who are doing great work organizing in the city. There are tons of policy recommendations as to how we can improve it. I think in the end, I think what makes me when I'm in my district and I see something like Stuyvesant Town, Peter Cooper Village, which was actually built before some of the very public housing developments that we discuss and to see those conditions, we know.

Carlina Rivera: We know there is so much potential there and we know that these families deserve so much better. So we are, we're running out of time, but I wanted to ask a little bit about organizing and what kind of you've seen in some of these spaces. Because many people see this public housing system as successful. They see it as successful for low income families as one of the absolute truest definitions of what is truly affordable.

Carlina Rivera: We have residents who have been born into these units, generations who have been raised in some of these developments and this has really been something that they've always known and that they're comfortable with. These are their communities and when we go to these family days and we see how people have invested in their neighborhoods, it really to me is inspiring and it's personal for me.

Carlina Rivera: I mean my mother grew up in Farragut housing. My dad grew up in Seward Park extension, so I grew up in section 8 so there's a reason why we need this. We are examples of that. We are products of that. And so when people say that it is successful, it's a successful model and we have to keep it public and we have to invest.

Carlina Rivera: When we look at other places in the world and in the nation, why do you think we've been able to be successful to a point? I know that we have hit so many things that need to be improved and sometimes people look at public housing as being in almost a state of disrepair. But I do think there is room there to organize and to unify, and to improve it. So compared to other systems throughout, I guess throughout the nation, why do you think this one has been successful?

Victor Bach: Well, I think there are a number of reasons and NYCHA's now about over 80 years old. For most of its six decades, it was known as public housing that worked. It was the model that other housing authorities tried to emulate. And that changed in the late 90s with a what Ritchie Torres calls a perfect storm of government disinvestment at every level, city, state and federal.

Victor Bach: NYCHA's not alone in the problems it's facing. The national capital backlog is roughly between 60 and $70 billion. Other housing authorities are facing similar disinvestment crises. Ours gets a lot of attention, certainly because it's the largest program in the country.

Victor Bach: I think the situation is very different from the European situation because social housing, as it's called houses a much larger range of incomes in those countries. So it has a much larger constituency. The way public housing was enacted in the 30s it required that incomes be below a certain level. So it's developed primarily a low income constituency that for many decades was very satisfied with NYCHA housing. But now that there's a crisis, we don't have the same wide constituency to support major investment, major public investment. That's why organizing is so important.

Carlina Rivera: That's what at the city council, we want to make sure that we are supporting some of the amazing organizations that are on the ground. I mean Good Old Lower East Side is just one of them. They are in every borough and they are truly trying to make sure that people have the information to get out there. And so I know in your role as chair of the committee, you have had some incredible hearing topics.

Carlina Rivera: Is there anything that you're looking forward to doing in the future?

Alicka Samuel: Oh, Oh yes, yes, yes. So I'm in September we are pulling together I think three hearings and in collaboration with my other colleagues. And so I know one that's coming up is around sanitation and rats, and mental health necessity ability with my colleagues. And on the mental health, Diana Ayala and so we just want make sure that we are providing oversight and a voice for the residents on every single topic that we hear.

Alicka Samuel: And I just also want to make reference to the Occupy NYCHA movement that we're seeing now and we have some amazing resident leaders with Secop and residence association presidents that are really out there keeping us on our toes. And I'm staying in this spotlight making sure that their residents are heard. And I just want to applaud them and congratulate them on the work that they're doing, too.

Carlina Rivera: So I just want to thank you all. I know, unfortunately, we're out of time for today. I know we could talk about this for hours. It is the residents and those families I think that that keep us going. This conversation has given me hope. I think we can get to a place where we respect the residents for what they've done for our city and where we can get these buildings, not just up to code, but up to a standard, a condition that we could all be proud of.

Carlina Rivera: So I want to thank Victor Bach for your years of service at Community Services Society. And for your policy mind, I want to thank Julian Morales from Good Old Lower East Side from all that he has done in organizing and being a true Yorker.

Carlina Rivera: And of course to council member Alicka Ampry-Samuel, the chair of New York City Councils Committee on Public Housing. Thank you. Thank you for your dedication and commitment. And I want to thank all the viewers for tuning into another edition of Represent NYC. Thank you so much.

About the Program

Represent NYC

"Represent NYC" is a weekly program produced by Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN) that gives local elected officials the chance to update voters about the issues shaping the future of the city. The show features a rotating cast of politicians, leaders and guests discussing pressing topics like...

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