Additional reporting by With Christopher Alvarez
On a November morning in 2018, Mayor Bill de Blasio convened the press in a community center at The Bronx’ Betances Houses to announce what he proclaimed a transformative moment for the long-troubled New York City Housing Authority.
De Blasio had decided to embrace Rental Assistance Demonstration or RAD, a controversial Obama-era reform in which management of public housing apartments is turned over to the private sector in exchange for much-needed upgrades.
The mayor planned to transition 62,000 of the housing authority’s 171,000 apartments into RAD by 2028, declaring, “This is a turning point for tens of thousands of NYCHA residents.”
Because some critics see RAD as the first step toward privatization of public housing, the mayor emphasized that NYCHA would retain ownership of the properties, rent would stay capped at no more than 30% of a tenant’s income and no resident would be displaced.
His biggest selling point: a promise that NYCHA would ensure private managers keep apartments safe while helping fix a public housing system in need of tens of billions of dollars in repairs.
Three years later, a growing number of potholes have emerged on the road to RAD.
An examination by THE CITY has found that in recent months, tenants at several Brooklyn and Manhattan developments have alleged that private contractors and building managers have botched renovations, clogged hallways with debris and left upgrades half-finished for weeks or more.
City building inspectors have repeatedly cited one contractor for multiple violations at a Brooklyn RAD development, while outside investigators uncovered toxic mold lurking in dozens of apartments of a development about to go into private management. The EPA lead paint abatement certification of a contractor hired for work at yet another development had expired in 2011.
And NYCHA, tenants contend, has done little to respond to their complaints — something longtime supporters of public housing have long feared.
‘Lack of Oversight’
U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-Brooklyn), who has long pressed to hike federal funding for public housing, warned a failure to keep an eye on private contractors and managers could undermine RAD’s goal: to better tenants’ lives.
“Lack of oversight and transparency with private sector developers and their work product at NYCHA developments has always been a serious concern of mine with the RAD program, and my office has continually worked with tenants to ensure improvements are done properly,” she wrote in an email to THE CITY.
“I’ve consistently urged both NYCHA and [the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] to provide further oversight into RAD managers, how the money is spent, and how the rights of tenants are preserved after conversions take place,” she added.
Meanwhile, the future of RAD is now clouded by a potential, unprecedented influx of federal money to NYCHA that some elected officials say could eliminate the need for private sector help.
Under the Build Back Better budget proposed by President Joe Biden and supported by the Democrat-controlled House, $80 billion would go to public housing. NYCHA — by far the country’s biggest public housing authority — would likely get a significant chunk.
Whether that funding will make it through the divided Senate remains to be seen, but the possibile cash injection is raising questions about the need for NYCHA’s aggressive rollout of RAD.
“RAD has historically been a necessity in a world of federal disinvestment, but what happens in a world where NYCHA receives the federal funding it needs?” asked U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-The Bronx). “Build Back funds $80 billion for public housing. If it were to become law, elected officials and tenants would rightly conclude that RAD has lost the original rationale for its use.”
Mo Vaughn Connection
As of this week, 9,500 NYCHA apartments are privately managed under RAD, with another 11,800 expected by year’s end.
At all of NYCHA’s RAD developments, the properties continue to be publicly owned, while upkeep and management is handled by the private sector. The developers commit to fund millions in renovations and get to collect rent that’s heavily subsidized by the government. That revenue stream provides the developers with steady collateral for loans.
But in recent months, tenant leaders, elected officials and the federal monitor who oversees the authority have flagged multiple problems with contractors and managers at several RAD developments in Brooklyn and Manhattan that serve about 8,800 tenants in 4,300 apartments. In each case, they’ve also blamed NYCHA’s lack of oversight.
In an emailed statement in response to THE CITY’s questions, NYCHA stated, “We disagree with the assertion that contractors are doing ‘shoddy work’ and covering up problems,” noting that so far all work at RAD projects — including at the Brooklyn and Manhattan sites — is proceeding on schedule.
NYCHA officials described an ongoing effort to track work and adherence by private developers to health and safety regulations at developments now in RAD — or Permanent Affordability Commitment Together (PACT), the city’s version of RAD.
Authority officials wrote that they’re now performing both scheduled and unannounced inspections, undertaking a monthly review of repair request responses and holding regular meetings with tenant leaders.
“Overall, our systematic approach to oversight and monitoring have led to the overwhelming resident satisfaction of our PACT program,” NYCHA’s statement said. “While we take every complaint seriously and work with our PACT partners to address all construction and maintenance issues, the number of issues represent a small proportion of the work that is taking place across the PACT portfolio.”
One tenant meeting took place in early September after NYCHA fielded dozens of complaints at Williams Plaza, a development in Williamsburg that went into RAD in February 2020. Daniel Greene, NYCHA’s compliance chief, and Fred Baldino, one of the federal monitor’s investigators, came to listen to residents’ grievances.
Tenants were furious with Omni New York LLC, the parent company of Renewal Construction, the contractor doing the renovations, and Reliant, the building managers that now oversee the development. Omni’s most famous partner is Mo Vaughn, the former Met first baseman.
As THE CITY recently reported, Omni has been the subject of criticism from tenants of the Betty Shabazz Apartments, an affordable housing complex in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
A Dating Disaster
Patricia Vazquez, 63, who raised two children and two grandchildren at Williams Plaza, moved there as a child in 1968.
Renewal Construction soon began replacing the heating system in the now 57-year-old development and renovations of Vazquez’s building started in June, when she went away for the summer to stay with her daughter in Georgia.
When she returned a couple of weeks ago, Vazquez said, Renewal still wasn’t finished. She said they’d ripped out the old vertical heat pipes in several rooms, leaving holes that allowed vermin to enter.
“There were roaches everywhere and I had to plug the holes myself,” she said. “It was awful.”
Workers have since made repairs, but new copper pipes installed horizontally along the walls near the ceiling remain exposed two weeks after being put in. When the heat is turned on, the pipes will be hot to the touch.
Vazquez recently received a letter from NYCHA informing her that authority inspectors would be visiting on a specific date and that she should be home to let them in.
There was a hitch.
The letter was dated Aug. 31 and postmarked Sept. 1. NYCHA had scheduled the inspection for July 8 — seven weeks earlier. The letter warned her, “NYCHA will commence termination [eviction] action after two (2) missed appointments.”
In an emailed response to THE CITY, NYCHA officials confirmed the letter was “generated in error,” and promised to send another.
‘Why Are You Doing That?’
A few floors up from Vasquez, Angel Reyes, 62, a former Marine who’s retired on disability, was trying to figure out why the renovation of his bathroom appeared to spawn mold.
Last spring, Renewal installed a plastic shower wall covering before fixing his busted bathroom ventilation system. So every time Reyes used the shower, moisture built up to the point where he had to run a mop along the walls and ceiling.
Despite his efforts, mold soon covered the tub edge connected to the new shower walls. This went on for months until Renewal finally arrived to repair the ventilation duct on Sept. 18. Workers wound up removing and replacing caulking they’d installed with the shower wall, NYCHA officials confirmed.
“They should have done [the vent] first,” Reyes said. “Why are you doing that? That’s like changing your shoes without changing your socks.”
Renewal is also renovating another nearby RAD development, Independence Towers. Since January, city buildings inspectors have cited Renewal six times for code violations there.
At a Wilson Street building, inspectors halted work in January and cited Renewal for “excessive construction debris throughout public corridors and stairwells.” Renewal paid a $2,500 fine, records show.
DOB then cited Renewal four times for performing work there that did not conform to construction documents approved by the department, records show.
Two of the citations remain open, while one was closed after Renewal paid a $1,250 fine and another was dismissed. One violation remains open regarding a citation at a Clymer Street building after DOB determined Renewal had failed to notify them when a worker got injured and was taken to a hospital, records show. A $5,000 fine has been imposed but has not yet been paid.
Independence Towers tenant Carlos Ayala said the contractors came to his Clymer Street apartment, installed half of a new radiator, and then went away.
“They didn’t show up until a month later to finish it,” said Ayala, 60. “They say they want to try to remodel but the way they’re doing it is horrible.”
‘They say they want to try to remodel but the way they’re doing it is horrible.’
Responding to THE CITY’s questions, Ronn Torossian, a spokesperson for Omni said, “We are making every effort to leave [tenants’] lives uninterrupted as we deliver new modern building systems, renovate the buildings’ interiors and exteriors, do full apartment renovations with new appliances and cabinets, and a new security camera system.
“It is important that no tenant feel frustrated by the construction and rehabilitation of their buildings, and we will redouble our efforts to make this process something to celebrate and their new homes a place to be proud of,” he added.
Torossian said that many of the delays in finishing work were related to the complexity of replacing the heating system at Williams Plaza.
The contractor plugs any holes temporarily, he said, adding that Renewal created an online form where tenants can report problems in real-time. “We are actively addressing issues as they are reported,” he wrote.
Torossian contended the contractor’s site safety manager didn’t report the worker injury to DOB because he didn’t believe it was serious enough to require notification.
“One of the criteria is that the injury needs to be treated with more than first aid. The worker was treated only with first aid, so he didn’t feel like it needed to be reported to DOB,” Torossian wrote.
NYCHA said its compliance unit checked into specific problems in common areas and 10 apartments at Williams Plaza, documenting a list of concerns including “quality of the work and professionalism of the contractors; maintenance issues, including mold and elevator outages; elements of the new construction; and poor communication.”
At a Williams Plaza building on Taylor Street, NYCHA’s compliance unit also looked into tenant complaints that the contractor performed demolition without controlling dust. NYCHA is now examining whether that violated DOB requirements that tenants be notified of planned construction, the authority said.
At Independence Towers, NYCHA noted that Renewal had either resolved or was in the process of resolving all Department of Buildings violations, adding, “NYCHA takes all complaints seriously, and we work with our PACT partners to address any concerns that are reported.”
NYCHA officials said the compliance unit has been to Independence at least three times — in one case ordering the contractor to remove debris from a corridor, and in another finding holes in the walls and ceiling from unfinished work.
“NYCHA is continuing to work with the PACT Partners to ensure site cleanliness in the hallways and across the grounds,” they wrote. “We have also asked Renewal to ensure that all holes are temporarily sealed while work is underway and properly sealed before construction completion.”
Responding to The CITY, Omni’s Torossian wrote that the non-compliance violations were the result of a “misunderstanding” with the buildings department and the company expected the open citation to be dismissed.
‘A Traumatic Experience’
Similar issues have plagued tenants at an Upper West Side RAD development called Wise Towers that transferred to private management last December.
PACT Renaissance Collaborative (PRC), a joint venture that includes Monadnock Construction, has been renovating the building, and tenants have repeatedly complained that contractors performing work there bully them.
Over the summer it got so bad that Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer intervened, writing to NYCHA Chairperson Gregory Russ in August that the PACT Renaissance work plan “lacked coordination, organization and created a traumatic experience for residents.”
Ernesto Carrera, a tenant leader at Wise, described contractors descending upon the development and making demands of tenants at home during renovations.
“I get a lot of calls from seniors and single mothers and they tell me they’re not being treated right,” he told THE CITY. “You have a tenant 75, 85 years old, and then you tell her, ‘If you don’t move this stuff then we’re not going to do the work’.”
Then there was the issue of the smelly laundry room he says PACT Renaissance took months to repair.
“The laundry room on the first floor had bad plumbing problems with dirty water shooting out of the wall,” Carrera said.
After he complained to the private manager, “They assure us that it’s going to be fixed. We’re at their beck and call and we have to wait for them to clean it up.”
The mess was finally fixed in mid-September. By then, he noted, PRC had run the development for nearly a year.
NYCHA officials said they’re working with Brewer’s office and PACT Renaissance to address tenants’ concerns “in real time.” They said a cracked underground drain line was responsible for the laundry room debacle, and promised the space would be fully renovated “within six to eight weeks.”
Tom Corsillo, a spokesperson for PACT Renaissance, said the company appreciated “the continued collaboration” with Brewer’s office and Carrera. He noted that PRC has completed more than 6,500 repairs and comprehensive renovations in more than 750 apartments since assuming management of 16 Manhattan NYCHA developments in December.
“We are encouraged by the positive feedback we’ve heard so far from residents and will continue to work to earn their trust by following through on our commitments,” he added.
Internal Report Tells Story
At another PACT Renaissance site, Washington Heights Rehab in Upper Manhattan, the federal monitor discovered toxic mold or water leaks in 45 apartments that hadn’t been addressed as PRC pushed to close the RAD transfer last fall. In one apartment, mold had blossomed behind newly installed sheetrock, the federal monitor found.
The monitor got NYCHA’s compliance unit involved. In May, the unit drafted an internal report that documented problems related to the transfer from NYCHA to PACT Renaissance Collaborative (PRC).
During a Dec. 1 meeting between NYCHA and PACT Renaissance on the day PRC took over, “PRC appeared unprepared to take on the open mold and leak order at the development,” according to the compliance unit report, which was obtained by THE CITY.
The report noted that NYCHA shouldered some blame, conceding that information about open mold and water leak work order requests wasn’t “properly communicated” to PACT Renaissance prior to Washington Heights Rehab’s transfer into RAD.
In fact, NYCHA’s compliance unit discovered that open repair requests for “potentially serious leak or mold issues” in 27 apartments were simply closed when PACT Renaissance took over without actually being repaired. In some cases, the report noted, observable mold conditions “were severe.”
In the emailed statement to THE CITY, NYCHA officials wrote that they worked with PACT Renaissance earlier this year to address the outstanding repair requests identified by the monitor.
NYCHA Promises Change
At another PACT Renaissance development at 344 E. 28th St., PRC in June notified tenants of plans to fix a water leak in two apartment lines, requiring workers to break open walls. That triggered the need for qualified staff on site to oversee potential lead paint abatement since the development had been found to contain lead paint.
After tenants asked PRC to provide credentials of the contractors regarding lead paint cleanup, PRC sent them the EPA lead paint certificates of a contractor involved in the work.
The certificates had expired 11 years ago. PRC said it sent the certificates “erroneously” and noted that two other contractors assigned to the work had up-to-date certificates.
Corsillo, the spokesperson for PACT Renaissance, contended that NYCHA’s compliance unit report “clearly supports what we have been saying for months: that the improper work at Washington Heights described in the federal monitor’s report was performed by individuals not employed by or connected to PRC and that critical information regarding mold issues at the development was not shared with PRC prior to the conversion to RAD.”
In response to this wave of complaints, NYCHA is redrafting its protocols, promising to increase oversight over all RAD contractors and managers going forward, according to the statement to THE CITY.
NYCHA has been transfering management of developments to private developers under RAD since 2016, and during that time its practice was to close out open repair requests, forcing tenants to start all over again and seek fixes from their new private-sector overlords.
After the recent wave of complaints, NYCHA’s compliance unit recommended a new protocol “so that the work orders are handed off directly and the developer is made responsible to address any open mold and leak work order within a set period of time after closing. This policy will be implemented at the next round of PACT sites.”