Tenants Warn They’re Expendable in NYCHA Restructuring Bill
Albany lawmakers are poised to approve a long-sought Preservation Trust to enable new investment in dilapidated housing projects — and Mayor Eric Adams says residents will have a say. The fine print is less clear.
For two years, legislation that would allow NYCHA to raise billions of dollars for much-needed repairs by placing apartments into a publicly controlled trust has been touted as the cure for what ails the nation’s biggest public housing authority.
And for two years it’s been dead in the water in Albany.
But after an initial bumpy reception, the so-called Preservation Trust now appears on track to win approval before this year’s state legislative session wraps up next week.
The trust would enable NYCHA to issue bonds to pay for potentially billions of dollars in upgrades, a significant step toward confronting what it estimates is $40 billion in needed repairs to its aging portfolio. Tenants have suffered for decades with deteriorating conditions from mold infestations to busted elevators to toxic lead paint.
NYCHA can’t use the revenue raised by traditional public housing as collateral. The bill lets it switch the funding to federal Section 8 vouchers, which can be used as collateral to borrow money. Under the trust, NYCHA continues to own and run the properties.
On Monday the bill was okayed by the Assembly Codes Committee, while the Senate version was moved to the Rules Committee Wednesday. Both now appear headed for a floor vote imminently.
But while lawmakers’ support for the trust has grown, so has the concern of many of NYCHA tenants about promises made in the runup to the vote in Albany assuring them they’ll have a meaningful say in how this all plays out.
Touting the proposal Monday, Mayor Eric Adams claimed that tenants will have a “first-in-the-country resident opt-in voting process,” stating, “Number one, you can vote in and out. If you don’t want it, then don’t do it.”
And NYCHA Chair Gregory Russ this week told a City Council hearing, “The trust bill now includes an opt-in feature...where the residents get to express their desires.”
But the bill requires a “minimum percentage” of residents in the development to vote and nowhere does the bill define that percentage, leaving it to be decided later. On average, less than 10% of tenants vote in tenant association president elections. It’s possible that a tiny number of residents could determine a development’s fate.
“Now the question is, is it the people who show up to do the voting?” asked Aixa Torres, a tenant leader at Smith Houses in Lower Manhattan and an interim co-chair for NYCHA’s Citywide Council of Presidents for southern Manhattan, the umbrella group representing all of NYCHA’s 400,000 tenants.
“I have 1,926 families (at Smith). Nine hundred and something people have to vote? It’s not clear,” she said. “It’s insane. It is so vague.”
Speaking Thursday with THE CITY, NYCHA’s Chief Counsel Lisa Bova-Hiatt acknowledged that the minimum percentage is not spelled out in the bill, but said NYCHA will propose rules — including a specific minimum percentage — 120 days after the bill takes effect. NYCHA will solicit tenant comments and hold a public meeting but will have the final say on the rules.
And Paula Segal, senior staff attorney in the equitable neighborhoods practice of the nonprofit TakeRoot Justice housing advocacy group, questioned whether the language of the bill truly allows for tenants to vote yes or no on opting in to the trust.
“The bill does not require the ‘opt-in’ vote that NYCHA staff has been describing in public forums,” Segal said. “It only requires a vote on what the Trust will do with a property after it receives it from NYCHA. It nowhere addresses resident involvement in deciding whether NYCHA will transfer the property to the Trust at all.”
NYCHA’s Bova-Hiatt insisted the language does allow for an opt-in vote, pointing to language that states if tenants vote to reject participation in the trust, “None of the proposed options shall be implemented at such housing facility until another vote is undertaken at such housing facility.”
Russ first proposed the trust in July 2020, modeling it on similar programs he ran while operating housing authorities in Minneapolis and Cambridge, Mass.
He immediately ran into headwinds in New York and significantly scaled plans back in 2021, trimming the number of apartments to be placed in the trust from his original plan of 110,000 — two-thirds of NYCHA’s 172,000 apartments — to 25,000.
But concerns remained about what was seen as inadequate tenant participation in determining what the trust will do with individual developments. The original sponsors, Assemblymember Steven Cymbrowitz (D-Brooklyn) and Sen. Brian Kavanagh (D-Manhattan), withdrew the bill just before the close of session last year, realizing it would not be approved.
This year they added language they claim gives tenants more of a say on some aspects of the program, including the hiring of contractors to perform renovations and resident participation on quality assurance committees to make sure upgrades are performed as promised.
Yet a significant number of tenants still oppose it for a variety of reasons — including concern that the federal government may not come through with needed financial support.
Nine of the 10 members of the Citywide Council of Presidents — tenant leaders who represent all of NYCHA’s 400,000 residents — are against it. Only the Brooklyn South member favors the trust. Four of the 28 Assembly housing committee members voted against it.
One was Assemblymember Harvey Epstein (D-Manhattan), a longtime tenant advocate who said that he met with all 13 tenant association presidents in his Lower East Side district — all opposed. “They all said we have issues with it,” he told THE CITY. “I have every development I represent telling me to vote no.”
Even Kavanagh no longer supports it, according to tenant leader Torres.
Torres says during a virtual meeting Monday, the tenant association leaders of all 45 Manhattan developments she represents as a Council of Presidents member came out against it, and when she communicated this to Kavanagh, “He said, ‘If you’re going to fight it, I’m going to fight it.’”
As of Tuesday, Kavanagh had withdrawn as the sponsor of the bill. He’d been replaced by Sen. Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn). Kavanagh did not respond to requests seeking comment.
‘How Do You Tell the Tenants?’
Torres says she and other tenant leaders question NYCHA Chair Russ’ claim to have performed adequate tenant outreach about the trust before seeking Albany’s approval, at a time when COVID-19 was causing tenants to avoid public settings.
“How do I tell the residents what is going to happen — and this is a major change — in the middle of a pandemic?” Torres said, citing one of her elderly neighbors “who won’t come out because of the pandemic. There’s a lot of people who won’t come out because of this pandemic. And the numbers are going up again. So how do you tell the tenants?”
And she and several elected officials who oppose the trust worry that needed Section 8 housing vouchers could get choked off in the future should the Republican party again gain control of Congress.
This week Russ made his case for the trust at a City Council budget hearing, noting the defeat last year of President Biden’s Build Back Better bill that would have steered billions of dollars to NYCHA. The bill was passed again this year by the House again but is now languishing in the Senate.
“We are continually reminded that we cannot depend solely on federal grant funding alone, and that we must implement creative strategies to bring residents the quality of life they deserve,” he wrote in prepared testimony. “Despite the best efforts of our advocates in federal government, it is clear that the only serious and viable plan on the table right now for massive, systemic improvements is the public trust.”
Speaking at the virtual hearing, Russ said, “It is the only path out.”
This argument that you can’t wait for the feds to show up convinced some groups that initially had been skeptical about the plan to sign on, from the Citizens Budget Commission to the Legal Aid Society to the Community Service Society.
On Monday Adams led tenants in a cheer of “trust the trust” at a rally at the Polo Grounds Houses in Washington Heights. And NYCHA management says 36 resident associations signed a letter of support, while a long list of Assemblymembers have signed on and several labor unions representing NYCHA workers.
One key supporter, U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-The Bronx), emphasizes “there is no magic bullet” to eliminate NYCHA’s many quality-of-life issues, but say he’s comfortable with using multiple tactics — the trust, promised city funding and the Obama-era Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program.
Unlike the trust, in which NYCHA continues to manage the developments, RAD turns over day-to-day operations to for-profit building managers. To date 15,000 units have been placed into RAD, with another 15,000 scheduled for conversion by year’s end.
“The public trust, it has the benefits of renovation without the cost of privatization,” said Torres. “NYCHA has no good options.”