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Amid Arsenic Scandal, NYCHA Chief Downshifts Role but Keeps Hefty Pay

Gregory Russ will step down as CEO, Mayor Eric Adams announced, while remaining the public housing authority chair at a $258,000 salary. Now-retracted tests that showed arsenic in drinking water is just the latest scandal Russ faced.

SHARE Amid Arsenic Scandal, NYCHA Chief Downshifts Role but Keeps Hefty Pay

NYCHA head Gregory Russ joins Mayor Eric Adams’ housing plan announcement at 90 Sands St. in Brooklyn. June 14, 2022.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The chairperson and CEO of the city’s sprawling public housing authority will step down as CEO but continue on as chair, assuming a role with less responsibility but keeping a salary that still matches the mayor’s paycheck.

Gregory Russ, who was appointed by former Mayor de Blasio in 2019 with the approval of federal housing officials, will assume the reduced workload starting Monday, City Hall announced Thursday.

Russ was collecting a stunning $414,000 annually since he was hired, plus NYCHA was paying his travel expenses as he commutes regularly back and forth to his home in Minneapolis. In his new role as chairman only, he’ll get $258,000, plus the same travel reimbursement will continue.

By comparison, Mayor Eric Adams gets the same amount in salary, $258,000. Gov. Kathy Hochul earns $250,000.

Adams announced the reshuffle days after a major debacle at NYCHA’s Jacob Riis Houses in downtown Manhattan, where tenants were first told tests showed arsenic in the water there and then — eight days later — that the tests were flawed and there was no arsenic. 

The plan to split the roles of chair and CEO at NYCHA, however, had been in the works for months, long before the fiasco at Riis.

NYCHA’s board approved the split in June as part of a sweeping “transformation plan” to restructure management at the long-troubled agency, first unveiled in March 2021.  

Lisa Bova-Hiatt, the authority’s general counsel, will step into the role of interim CEO until a permanent appointment is made. A national search is now underway for a replacement, Adams said on Thursday. Bova-Hiatt’s salary at NYCHA was $258,000 in 2021, records show. 

It’s not clear how long Russ will stay on as chair in his reduced role, and it’s not clear why he’s going to continue collecting a salary that matches Adams’ base pay. NYCHA estimates it needs $40 billion to bring all its 175,000 apartments up to snuff.

As initially proposed, the Transformation Plan suggested that NYCHA could, if it chose to, make the new chair-only position part-time and unpaid.  

Improving Governance?

In a statement released by Adams, Russ suggested he’s not departing NYCHA anytime soon, specifically mentioning the preservation trust that he crafted. He hopes it will generate an influx of funding for upgrades by allowing the authority to float bonds. 

“My commitment to NYCHA remains as strong as ever, and as we strengthen the authority and deliver the Public Housing Preservation Trust together, I feel confident in the future of NYCHA,” Russ said in Adams’ statement, explaining that he will “remain a resource and partner” to Bova-Hiatt, “the NYCHA team, NYCHA residents and the city.” 

Bova-Hiatt served as NYCHA’s point person two weeks ago when NYCHA received test results from a private vendor indicating that six locations at the Riis Houses had tested positive for levels of arsenic deemed unacceptable by federal standards. 

On Sept. 2, the eve of Labor Day weekend, Riis’ 2,600 tenants were advised not to drink or cook with the water until the system could be flushed out and the water re-tested. After eight days in which residents relied on bottled water distributed by City Hall, officials suddenly reversed course and reported that the vendor retracted the original test results and there was never any arsenic in the water.

The announcement was made at a chaotic community meeting in a packed school auditorium. When Russ tried in vain to calm the enraged crowd of residents unsure what to believe about the safety of their water, they shouted him down. The factual flip-flop came after years of tenants not trusting NYCHA management, which has been caught again and again covering up unhealthy and unsafe conditions, including the widespread existence of lead paint. 

The Riis Houses arsenic scare is now the subject of an investigation by Bart Schwartz, the federal monitor overseeing NYCHA, in partnership with the city Department of Investigation.

On Thursday Schwartz praised the leadership change, stating, “Separating the role of the CEO and chair will strengthen the NYCHA Board’s ability to provide effective accountability and improve governance structure, including strategic and organizational planning, strong fiduciary oversight, financial management and other services that NYCHA residents need and deserve.”

Next week NYCHA and City Hall officials will be put under oath at a hearing run by three City Council committees aimed at finding out what went on behind the scenes before, during and after the Riis scandal.

It’s not clear if Russ, who as of Monday will no longer be NYCHA’s CEO, will show up, or if interim CEO Bova-Hiatt will testify instead.

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