Two years ago, City Hall floated a plan that, for many, amounted to a worst case scenario for public housing tenants: demolish and rebuild parts of two New York City Housing Authority complexes in Chelsea.

The 2019 proposal for the Fulton and Chelsea-Elliott Houses was met with swift and intense backlash as tenants, housing advocates and local elected officials loudly decried the plan — which would have temporarily moved residents to a newly-built property on the grounds before demolition.

And then something odd happened: NYCHA and the mayor quietly changed course, shelved the plan and sat down to listen to residents.

Now, following months of Tuesday-night meetings of the “Chelsea Working Group” — made up of tenants, experts and the city housing officials — which were at times grueling and emotional, participants said, residents are helping steer how the complexes will be managed.

“Some people went in there as enemies. And I can tell you, 90% of us came out as if we were family,” said Miguel Acevedo, who has served as president of the Fulton Houses tenant association for 12 years.

The group ultimately decided on a financial path forward for the complexes, which together need $366 million of repairs and maintenance — just a fraction of the $40 billion NYCHA says is required for fixes across 170,000 apartments.

Tenant Power

Demolition has been taken off the table in the final report, released earlier this year. The working group chose instead to move forward with changes that have been quite controversial at other NYCHA sites: so-called infill development and converting the Chelsea public housing sites to private management.

New development would bring nearly 700 units of housing to be built in the future on four sites within the complexes, provided the new construction does not require demolition of existing tenant apartments, the report said. Half of those new apartments would be income-restricted affordable housing.

The new buildings, however, would generate only about a fifth of the $366 million Fulton and Chelsea-Elliott need according to NYCHA.

Residents at The Fulton Houses on West 17th Street enjoy a spring day. Credit: Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

The bulk of the rest of the money — or 72% of the $366 million — would come through the federal Rental Assistance Demonstration program, or RAD, which is known in New York as Permanent Affordability Commitment Together (PACT). The Obama-era program allows private companies to manage public housing, giving them responsibility for maintenance, repairs and rent collection. 

Most importantly for the working group, tenants will have some power over the as-yet-unchosen management company for the Chelsea sites.

“We’re putting into our agreement — if this private manager comes in, and doesn’t do it correctly, then NYCHA has to be forced to get rid of them,” Acevedo said.

Critics have long-decried moves toward privatization, saying public housing should remain wholly public. But  Acevedo sees the working group’s plan as the only viable way to get enough funding to substantially improve living conditions for his neighbors.

“Right now, I’ve got seven buildings with no hot water,” Acevedo said. “Why should we live that way? Because we’re scared of privatization? No.”

Not everyone is on board, and a vocal contingent of tenants and activists with the group Fight For NYCHA continue to protest fiercely against the changes coming to Fulton and Chelsea-Elliott. Critics contend that most tenants have been kept out of the loop, that Acevedo does not represent all residents and the working group was an “undemocratic, coercive process,” two tenants wrote in an op-ed last month.

Despite the ongoing debate, the proposals created from those weekly working group meetings have offered a glimpse at how the notorious housing agency could approach engagement with tenants in years to come.

“This is something new to the authority. This [tenant power] is something that makes some of the authority’s key staff uneasy,” said Vic Bach, a longtime housing analyst and advocate at the nonprofit Community Service Society, who was in the working group. “But a number of us keep pressing for this.”

Kicking and Screaming

No part of the working group’s recommendations came easily, according to multiple sources on the panel and the gatherings’ facilitator, urban planning nonprofit Hester Street.

At the first meeting, everyone was “crowded into a classroom at one of the local schools,” said Isella Ramirez, director of community engagement at Hester Street.

“Tensions were high. People were screaming over each other,” she said.

It didn’t help that Mayor Bill de Blasio showed up to that first gathering and “sucked all the air out of the room,” according to one working group member not authorized to speak publicly about the process.

For weeks, the Tuesday meetings were punctuated by arguments and disruptions. Fight For NYCHA members protested the closed-door events and tried to livestream them, Ramirez noted.

Yet it soon became clear that tenants in the room held some real sway over the officials — including NYCHA Chair Greg Russ, Deputy Mayor Vicki Been and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who all were at nearly every meeting, attendees said.

City Hall’s plan “was thrown out the door very quickly,” another source on the panel said. Originally, the group was slated to meet for 12 weeks. But as the group dug into the issues at hand, that stretched into 18 months — including a pause between March and September of 2020 due to the pandemic.

NYCHA Chair Gregory Russ speaks with tenants in The Bronx, Aug. 14, 2019. Credit: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

The group explored various options to fund the buildings, including selling air rights, looking for city and state funds, and exploring whether tenants could take control of the complexes through a resident management corporation. 

“We really ran down every rabbit hole,” said one non-tenent member of the group not authorized to speak publicly about the meetings.

Over time, Ramirez of Hester Street said the conversations became a bit more open.

“I’m not saying there was never-ending trust,” she said. “But I think people were more willing to listen and let go of their own projections and their own perspective … to hear out what other people were saying.”

The Right to Stay

Not all members of the working group, however, stayed through the end.

Jackie Lara, an 18-year tenant of the Fulton Houses and a member of Fight for NYCHA, attended the meetings in late 2019 and early 2020, but stopped going eventually — because she said she felt powerless there.

For her, the fear of being displaced from her home by private real estate developers is very real, and she felt the group and their push to RAD-PACT puts the complexes on that path.

“This is a prime neighborhood, you know?” she said. “We’ve got Chelsea Market. Google’s right across the street. So, eventually, I feel they’re gonna push us out. Slowly but surely, they’re gonna push us out of there.”

Google’s New York headquarters on Eight Avenue in Chelsea, March 26, 2020. Credit: Ben Fractenberg

Her fear is a common one among public housing tenants, especially those living in buildings slated for conversion to private management. The working group tackled that unease head-on, comparing traditional NYCHA leases and those under RAD-PACT line by line to ensure tenants will be legally protected after the change.

A subcommittee dealing specifically with resident rights and protections crafted requirements to “ensure residents have greater, or at minimum the same, legal rights to stay in their homes,” the group’s final report read.

It also stipulated that a RAD-PACT conversion should move forward only if the group’s recommendations are incorporated into the deal’s regulatory documents and leases.

“Right now, I’ve got seven buildings with no hot water… Why should we live that way?”

NYCHA has agreed to the report’s recommendations, said spokesperson Nekoro Gomes in a statement, and is “in the process of implementing” them.

“Everything that we suggested and requested, NYCHA and City Hall has agreed to,” Acevedo said.

Lucy Newman, a Legal Aid Society attorney and member of the working group, said the new leases under RAD-PACT “will look different than the public housing lease,” but “will ensure that tenants have the same rights, protections and obligations under the new lease that they had as public housing tenants,” she said.

Some of the changes the Chelsea group negotiated have already gone beyond the local complexes and “made their way into the new RAD-PACT lease citywide already,” Joe Restuccia, executive director of the nonprofit Clinton Housing Development Company and a member of the working group, told Chelsea’s Community Board 4 at a meeting on April 7.

Gomes confirmed many of the report’s recommendations have already been incorporated into the leases being used at other RAD-PACT developments now — including requirements that NYCHA approve any new fees from the new private managers and incorporating existing pet and “smoke-free” policies, he said.

Putting the Fight Behind Them

After 18 months of struggle to make a plan, the future of Fulton and Chelsea-Elliott is just starting. Ramirez emphasized that the working group final report was “step zero.”

“Step one, really, is happening now,” she said.

Tenants are currently working with NYCHA to draft the language for a formal solicitation document — called a request for proposal, or RFP — that will be the first step in finding and choosing the new private manager who will come in to run the place.

The RFP will set the parameters for what type of manager should apply to be considered to take over management of Fulton and Elliott-Chelsea. Gomes said the RFP will be released this month or in May.

Tenants will also help select its new manager from among the firms that respond to the RFP. Gomes said that the management team should be chosen by the end of this year, and “if that happens then we anticipate renovations may begin as soon as 2023.”

To the knowledge of housing experts on the working group, public housing tenants have rarely, if ever, been involved with the drafting or selection process of an RFP from NYCHA.

According to one source on the working group, getting tenants involved in that process was “a huge point of contention.” But, eventually, the authority relented.

“It was really an unprecedented process. I don’t know if it’s replicable in every other NYCHA community, but it’s certainly a model that deserves attention,” said Bach of CSS.

Meanwhile Lara, the tenant leader opposed to the plan at Fulton Houses, says that she’s exhausted after the past two years of fighting City Hall and now the working group. She’s considering moving to her mother’s home in Florida.

“I don’t know what else to do,” she said. “I’ve fought, I’ve fought, I’ve fought and when you don’t have no power behind you, you’re helpless.”

Even those who stuck with the working group and its plan have their doubts. Mary McGee, a Fulton tenant member of the Chelsea Working Group who was part of the panel’s final report, noted at the April 7 CB4 meeting that the Biden White House has earmarked $40 billion for public housing in its infrastructure plan. With some of that, would NYCHA need private managers at all?

“If more money is allocated for NYCHA, why do we have to go RAD?” she asked.

Acevedo points out that money would be allocated for the whole country, and can’t all be poured into NYCHA. Plus, it may take years for it to be approved, allocated and spent — and, by then, “your building may be condemned.”