NYCHA’s “blueprint” to generate cash for the city’s public housing system could effectively end federal oversight of its ongoing struggle to clean up mold infestation in thousands of apartments, tenants and elected officials warn.
In July, NYCHA Chairperson Gregory Russ proposed legislation that would technically remove 110,000 of NYCHA’s 175,000 units from public housing by placing them into a public trust that allows the authority to raise funds for much-needed building fixes.
But Russ acknowledged during a state Assembly hearing Tuesday that the measure doesn’t include language ensuring tenants would remain protected by a landmark 2013 agreement to clean up the mold once apartments are placed in the trust.
“I think it’s important that the same protections that [tenants] have today they will have tomorrow,” Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez (D-Manhattan) told THE CITY after the hearing.
“Clearly anything less that’s left to interpretation or the contractual obligation for NYCHA to implement is not good enough,” added Rodriguez, whose district includes 15 public housing complexes. “I think we have to be more specific in the enabling language. Otherwise, intentions are good but they are just intentions.”
Meanwhile, the judge who oversaw the mold-eradication deal is scheduled to hear arguments Wednesday over NYCHA’s other reform to place apartments under private managers, via a separate program known as Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD).
A Matter of Trust
During two hours of virtual testimony Tuesday to the Assembly’s Housing Committee, Russ touted his “Blueprint for Change” as a step toward raising money to make an estimated $11 billion in repairs to the aging public housing system, the nation’s largest.
He made no mention of the mold case settlement known as the Baez agreement.
Near the end of the hearing, Rodriguez asked Russ: “When we transfer over to the trust model, what happens to the Baez agreement? Do the (tenants) continue to receive the protections that the settlement put in place?”
Russ responded that under the trust, “The requirements of Baez do not go away.”
But when Rodriguez asked, “Is there language there specifically keeping NYCHA in Baez?”
Russ conceded, “I don’t think so.”
“That is our intent,” he added. “Certainly if there are concerns in some way, we want to make sure that mold is addressed.”
‘There Can Be No Ambiguity’
A federal judge currently oversees NYCHA’s landmark agreement to abate mold as part of the 2013 court settlement. The deal came after Metro Industrial Areas Foundation, a nonprofit housing advocacy group, filed suit, alleging mold was aggravating asthma and other respiratory ailments for thousands of tenants.
NYCHA agreed to the fixup, but took the position that it applies only to apartments that are considered public housing.
The housing authority has already removed thousands of apartments from the mold agreement via the Rental Assistance Demonstration program, in which buildings are placed under private management.
NYCHA’s position is that RAD apartments are no longer covered by the court agreement.
On Tuesday, Ray Lopez, a leader with Metro IAF, said, “We agree with Assemblymember Rodriguez: There can be no ambiguity. The revised Baez consent decree must be applied to all NYCHA housing, including any units that transition to a trust, if the Blueprint passes.”
The Baez agreement created a tenant ombudsperson who has succeeded over the last several months in pressuring NYCHA to address specific mold cleanups.
“Thousands of families have already benefited from the independent mold-and-leak ombudsperson,” Lopez said. “Residents are finally seeing real mold and leak repairs. This resource can’t be taken away.”
NYCHA has already pulled thousands of apartments out of the mold agreement in its systematic effort to place 62,000 of its 172,000 units into the Obama-era federal RAD program. So far, nearly 7,000 NYCHA apartments have been converted to RAD units.
Mold Coverage Dispute
Last month, Metro IAF lawyers wrote to Manhattan Federal Court Judge William Pauley, who is overseeing the mold case, asking him to issue an order requiring that all RAD apartments remain covered by Baez.
In their letter, the lawyers noted that NYCHA had shifted 180 degrees on the issue.
In a June email to Metro IAF, a NYCHA lawyer stated that RAD “requires compliance with Baez.” But in an October letter, NYCHA lawyers changed their position, stating that RAD apartments “fall outside the scope of the” Baez agreement.
“NYCHA cannot circumvent its obligations under the decree by changing the structure by which NYCHA-owned buildings are managed,” Metro IAF’s lawyers wrote to Pauley.
The group is represented by the nonprofit National Center for Law and Economic Justice, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the law firm Proskauer Rose LLP.
NYCHA’s lawyers responded on Friday, again arguing that RAD apartments aren’t covered by Baez and asking the judge to deny Metro IAFs request. Pauley scheduled a virtual court hearing for Wednesday.