One by one, the nation’s biggest public housing authority is turning over management of tens of thousands of its 175,000 apartments to the private sector.
And with every apartment that goes into private hands, long-awaited repairs are deemed “closed” — even though the fixes haven’t taken place, a housing advocacy group charged in court papers filed this week.
Instead, tenants are instructed to tell the development’s new management team about what work needs to be done. NYCHA officials — who have struggled for years to reduce a massive repair request backlog that recently hit a record 475,000 — then get to take those jobs off the books.
This bureaucratic sleight of hand is taking place under an Obama-era program called Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) in which NYCHA turns building management over to a private company while retaining ownership of the property. To date, 9,500 units have been converted, with another 12,000 to follow in the next few months.
All told, NYCHA plans to transfer 62,000 apartments into RAD and a local version of the program called Permanent Affordability Commitment Together (PACT) by the time the transformation is complete.
This set-up allows NYCHA to raise money via up-front fees from developers, who are charged with upgrading and maintaining the complexes. The developers pocket the tenants’ rent going forward and must ensure living conditions are safe.
In court papers filed late Monday, however, a tenant advocacy group contends the transition to RAD also allows NYCHA to inaccurately claim it’s chipping away at a mountain of unfinished repairs.
In 2013, NYCHA under the leadership of then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg, managed to reduce the number of open repairs from 420,000 to around 100,000. But investigations revealed many of those “closed” repairs had never happened. Since then, the number has inched back up on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s watch.
As of the end of last month, the backlog hit 475,000 unfinished repairs, NYCHA records reveal.
Court Coverage Questioned
The tactic of making outstanding repair requests disappear into RAD surfaced this week in an ongoing federal lawsuit Metro Industrial Areas Foundation filed to force NYCHA to remove toxic mold from tens of thousands of public housing units across the city.
In 2013, NYCHA officials agreed to settle the suit by fixing the problem. But managers of the nation’s largest housing system have struggled since to rid homes of mold.
NYCHA officials recently found what appeared to be a way to at least reduce the scope of the task by contending that when a public housing development goes into RAD, it’s no longer covered by the court agreement.
Metro IAF says that’s a violation of the deal. On Monday, the group’s lawyers filed court papers telling the judge overseeing the case why they believe RAD apartments should be included in the court deal.
The lawyers cited Neil Steinkamp, a data expert hired as part of the suit. In court documents, Steinkamp wrote: “It is my understanding that once NYCHA transitions an apartment through RAD/PACT, the open work orders are administratively closed in NYCHA’s data systems.”
Steinkamp said “residents are instructed to contact the new property management to open a work order to have remaining repair work completed.”
He used NYCHA’s latest RAD conversion as an example: a group of smaller NYCHA developments spread out across Manhattan that NYCHA transitioned into RAD last month. Tenants there had expressed skepticism about the shift, with some threatening to refuse to sign their new lease.
There were 1,645 apartments in these Manhattan developments placed into RAD. Once that happened, 746 pending repair requests for mold or excessive moisture in 416 apartments there were closed by NYCHA without the work having been completed, according to Steinkamp.
He wrote that of the 746 open mold and leak repair requests in the Manhattan developments, 40% had been unresolved for more than 200 days before NYCHA deemed them “administratively closed” when they transitioned to RAD. None had been completed.
Many of the tenants there were seeking repairs for “severe conditions” of mold, Steinkamp wrote. Of the 416 units with pending repair asks, 269 were listed as “high priority,” he said.
More Than Mold
Some units awaited cleanup of more than 20 square feet of mold, while two had over 200 square feet of the toxin that had not yet been fully remediated when NYCHA closed the work tickets, according to the court papers.
And it wasn’t just mold. There were also open repair requests for broken showers, open wall cavities, damaged floors, radiator leaks, poor ventilation and busted pipes, Steinkamp noted. All were categorized as closed, but remained unresolved, he said.
NYCHA officials would not disclose the total number of repair requests at all developments that have been closed due to RAD conversion in the last two years.
Lawyers for Metro IAF emphasized in its court filing that NYCHA closes the requests “regardless of whether any actual repairs were completed.” And once that happens, they wrote, “NYCHA ceases to track” the work.
As a result, the lawyers asserted, NYCHA is unaware of the current status of the 746 open tickets in the Manhattan developments that transitioned to RAD last month.
The lawyers also said NYCHA staff had given them “conflicting reports … as to whether NYCHA is providing RAD developers with a list of open mold and excessive moisture work orders that NYCHA has administratively closed on the date of transition.”
‘Working Diligently with NYCHA’
Tom Corsillo, a spokesperson for Cornell Pace, the property manager handling the group of Manhattan RAD developments, said, “We are working diligently with NYCHA and residents to quickly, safely and thoroughly address both the repair needs that existed prior to our assuming management this month and those that arise moving forward.”
“We understand that to earn residents’ trust, we must be transparent and follow through on our commitments,” he added. “Residents can file and track the status of repairs through their online tenant portal and we are communicating with them regularly.”
Susan Camerata, chief financial officer of Wavecrest, which manages NYCHA RAD properties in Far Rockaway, Queens, and The Bronx, said NYCHA provides a list of open tickets “but we do not rely solely on the accuracy or totality of the list.”
“We also encourage residents at tenant meetings to notify us of existing repair needs to ensure continuity in our records,” she said, adding that said the company prioritizes repairs for safety issues including mold and leaks, but may delay repairs on “smaller items that will soon be demolished in the complete renovation of apartments.”
The number of open repair requests for mold at NYCHA complexes has risen over the last month, from about 60,000 at the beginning of October to 72,000 as of the end of November. The growth coincides with the overall hike in open repair jobs.
‘NYCHA seems to be falling further behind in fulfilling its obligations.’
During a virtual court hearing Monday, Manhattan Federal Judge William Pauley, who is overseeing the mold case against NYCHA, cited those statistics in expressing dismay at how the housing authority has addressed this issue since the lawsuit was settled seven years ago this month. The judge reappointed Steinkamp and Microecologies, an expert on mold, for another year to keep a close eye on NYCHA.
“NYCHA’s compliance with the revised consent decree appears to be on a troubling trajectory,” Pauley warned. “This court expected that NYCHA’s mold remediation metrics would improve. NYCHA has been affording abundant resources to mold abatement… Nevertheless the quarterly reports reveal that NYCHA seems to be falling further behind in fulfilling its obligations.”
Pauley has yet to rule on Metro IAF’s request to keep RAD apartments in the mold lawsuit. But he warned NYCHA that if things don’t improve soon, “The court will entertain an application from plaintiffs for relief to ensure NYCHA’s compliance.”