For public housing tenants in 16 Manhattan complexes, a crucial deadline is coming up fast: signing a lease with a new, private management company.
In 1,718 apartments across the borough, a developer brought in by the New York City Housing Authority to repair and manage the properties has begun sending out paperwork to finalize the long-planned shift.
Tenants within the complexes set to undergo the big change within weeks are trying to make sense of the complicated switch. Some are cautiously optimistic, while others are vowing not to cooperate until certain demands are met.
The conversion is critical to the de Blasio administration’s plans for public housing renovations in a group of NYCHA properties stretching from Kips Bay to Washington Heights set to come under the stewardship of PACT Renaissance Collaborative, or PRC, at the end of November.
The city chose the consortium, led by Monadnock Development, in 2019 to take over the Manhattan phase of the effort, under an Obama-era federal housing program called Rental Assistance Demonstration. RAD uses a combination of government subsidies and mortgage borrowing to infuse cash into financially starved housing authorities.
The funding will help NYCHA carry out a portion of an estimated $40 billion in repairs needed at its properties.
In total, NYCHA’s RAD plans will move a third of its apartments — home to roughly 130,000 New Yorkers — to private management.
With signed leases in hand, PRC will be able to financially close on the deal with the city and feds, which allows the group to line up funding for a slew of upgrades. Among them: new roofs, boilers and lobbies as well as individual apartment repairs, paint jobs and new kitchens and bathrooms.
To some residents, the promises sound too good to be true, especially coming from a housing authority that tenants say has been habitually untrustworthy.
“They are really afraid that this lease thing is bogus,” said Ernesto Carrera, president of the tenant association at Wise Towers, an Upper West Side complex that is part of the Manhattan bundle.
The fear current residents will be priced out or otherwise displaced is widespread, Carrera said — despite that the conversion process includes key provisions to protect tenants.
For example, all vacancies in a RAD-converted building will be filled using the Section 8 waiting list and all NYCHA tenants have a “right to stay” with no additional screening process, according to the RAD Handbook, a 2018 guide co-written by housing advocates in coordination with NYCHA.
“Your development will not be ‘gentrified,’” the guide promises.
Still, worries persist. At a virtual town hall held Sept. 30 with representatives of PRC and NYCHA, a tenant from Carrera’s complex, Victor Gonzalez, asked, when the new managers came in, would he be priced out?
“No, there’s not a chance of that happening,” Robert Tesoriero, the director of NYCHA’s Leased Housing Department, responded.
He noted that a tenant’s rent would rise only if his or her income goes up — to a point.
After a building conversion, rent is set at no higher than 30% of income, the RAD Handbook notes. That’s the same standard long in place for federally assisted housing. If a RAD tenant’s rent isn’t already 30% of their income, it will rise to that level over the span of five years.
Gonzalez seemed satisfied with the answer. But many more doubts remain, according to Carrera.
“Me, personally, I’d say change is not bad. If it’s for the better, I’m with it. Right? But my phone blows up from people calling me up, asking me questions,” he said.
Rochel Leah Goldblatt, a spokesperson for NYCHA, said in an emailed statement that the agency has a “track record of incorporating tenant concerns into our deals” and is currently converting or renovating more than 15,000 units citywide.
“With each renovation we learn from resident feedback and improve outreach and tenant protections,” she wrote.
PRC is aiming to close the deal in late November, and wants to get all tenants in the Manhattan buildings on new leases before then.
Amy Stokes, an assistant vice president at Monadnock, said at the town hall that her group had already begun reaching out to tenants in one Washington Heights complex to start lease-signing, and would be contacting residents in all the 16 complexes by the end of October.
“By the month’s end we will have reached out to everyone to schedule an appointment to sign the lease,” she said.
Ready for a Fight
Some tenants in one Manhattan complex are already refusing to sign on the dotted line.
At 344 E. 28th St. in Kips Bay, tenant association president Melanie Aucello has put a petition together joined by about 40 residents who are boycotting signing new leases until the complex can hire a lawyer to look over the documents with tenants.
“We’re going to do it collectively as an entire building,” she said. “I want it to happen, but they cannot do it without it being fairly reviewed by an attorney.”
THE CITY reported this summer that tenants at Aucello’s complex felt they were being kept in the dark about the upcoming RAD conversion.
To shed light, PRC and NYCHA recently asked the Legal Aid Society to set up a hotline (212-298-2450) for tenants in the Manhattan bundle who have questions about their leases. The legal group will also host “Lease Addition” days where tenants can add family members, pets and appliances to their lease ahead of conversion.
Lucy Newman, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society and one of the housing advocates who helped write the RAD Handbook, spoke with tenants at the Sept. 30 town hall.
She urged them to review their draft leases as soon as they get them from PRC and call the hotline to sort out legal questions as soon as possible — while stressing she did not work for NYCHA or PRC.
“Our focus is always on how to provide support to residents who have questions ... but also to ensure that you are protected and have the same rights and protections that you would otherwise as a public housing resident,” Newman said.
‘They’re Not Listening’
According to PRC officials, if a resident refuses to sign a new lease with the new, private manager, the landlord group will not get a subsidy from the federal government for that apartment.
For every unit that doesn’t bring in federal funding through Section 8, the harder it becomes to finance the upgrades needed in each building, said Pierre Downing, a PRC representative overseeing the conversions in Manhattan. “Efforts to suppress the signing of leases could unfortunately delay or jeopardize those improvements,” he said.
Goldblatt, the NYCHA spokesperson, said “a boycott of lease signings would further delay the dire capital repairs needed” at the East 28th Street complex and others.
Aucello said she doesn’t want to stop the process completely. When she first heard about the project, she was excited for the changes. But, so far, she has felt ignored by NYCHA.
“In the beginning, I was so on board with them. I want this to happen,” Aucello said. “The only thing is, the way they’re going about it. They ask us for our input and we’re telling them things that we need and they’re just not listening.”
‘Like I’m in a Hotel’
DeReese Huff understands the confusion — and the fear. Huff’s building, Campos Plaza on the Lower East Side, went through a non-RAD conversion to Section 8 in 2016 through a deal with the city that saw a private developer come in to renovate and manage a NYCHA complex.
The tenant association president was nervous about the change when it was first announced, she said. But after all was said and done, she was thrilled — and is happy to give props.
Huff wrote an op-ed in support of the process, has spoken at NYCHA town halls and even gave a press tour with the mayor to show off her new digs.
“When I was going through it, I said, listen, I gotta give this company a chance. Because it can’t be worse than what I’m already living,” she told THE CITY. Now, it feels like a whole new place, she says.
“I tell anybody, when I go in my bathroom, I feel like I’m in a hotel,” she said.
Still, she knows much of the success of the conversion is due to the new management company, which she believes has done a good job.
Each conversion has its own landlord. Huff’s advice to tenants going through a conversion: study up.
“They should definitely do their homework. Do research on that company before they sign anything over. For real,” she said.
Downing said PRC understands “we have decades of institutional distrust to overcome” and will try to earn tenants’ confidence “by continuing to be transparent and by following through on our commitments.”
“We’ve spent months meeting with residents both in person and virtually, in large town halls and one-on-one, and we will keep doing that,” he said.
City Could Do Differently
The process to convert the buildings in Manhattan is just the beginning of a large wave of private management coming to NYCHA.
In the long term, New York City plans to convert 62,000 units to private management, and thousands of units are already in the pipeline. A bundle of properties in Brooklyn is next on the docket, with 2,625 units.
NYCHA Chair Greg Russ was a major proponent of the system even before he came to New York in 2019, having led RAD conversions in Cambridge, Mass., and Minneapolis, Minn.
And one of the candidates to be New York’s next mayor, Shaun Donovan, was the architect of RAD when he served as the secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Obama administration.
Donovan said he’d envisioned RAD conversions as a way to shift the funding for public housing into Section 8 — a landlord-subsidy program that has enjoyed bipartisan federal support from “an enormous political coalition” over time, he said.
“My belief was: If we could move public housing funding into Section 8, we would make sure that in the decades to come, funding for public housing would grow, not shrink … to make it part of a big political tent,” he said during a conversation last month with THE CITY as part of a series of interviews with 2021 mayoral candidates.
To him, that goal has been overlooked in the debate over conversions in New York.
“We’ve gotten lost in this discussion that, ‘Oh, RAD means privatization.’ It doesn’t. All it means is a shift of funding source, which in the long run will help preserve public housing,” he said.
‘They’re Not Buying It’
Carrera at Wise Towers says his complex could use a revamp. Security is lax, he said, and the apartments need a lot of repairs.
“This is what people want. They’re tired of coming home from work and the elevators don’t work,” he said.
But with the new plan, Carrera sees a “lot of red flags” and remembers the history of a housing authority that has not done what it promised for far too long.
“They’re gonna tell you what you want to hear. But you still have people that — they’re not buying it. They just don’t trust them,” he said.