Chairman Gregory Russ is set to announce Thursday that he’s stepping down from his high-salaried job running the beleaguered New York City Housing Authority.
Russ was notable for masterminding a financial rescue plan for NYCHA — and for an unusually generous compensation deal that allowed him to commute regularly to his home in the Midwest while affording him an apartment in a luxury Tribeca high-rise.
Once Russ is gone, six-figure payouts to NYCHA’s chair are expected to become a thing of the past: A plan is now in the works to make the job strictly voluntary, with a minimal monthly stipend of $250 to attend the authority’s board meetings.
During his three years running NYCHA, Russ at first collected an extraordinary salary of $414,000 to $430,000 while serving as both CEO and chair of the nation’s biggest housing authority.
When NYCHA split his dual role last fall and he became chair only, his salary dropped to $258,000 — still the same as that of Mayor Eric Adams, and slightly more than Gov. Kathy Hochul’s $250,000 paycheck.
On Tuesday, a top official in the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) confirmed that a plan is in the works to eliminate the hefty salary for the chair and turn the job into a volunteer appointment.
In response to THE CITY’s inquiry, Alicka Ampry-Samuel, administrator of the regional HUD office that oversees New York, wrote in an email that HUD, NYCHA, federal prosecutors and the federal monitor who oversees NYCHA are discussing “the Chair position at NYCHA becoming part-time and compensated through a stipend.
“By having NYCHA’s Chair be part-time, NYCHA’s governance reflects the public housing industry norm of having a part-time chair,” Ampry-Samuel wrote, noting that the timing of the switch and particulars of the stipend are “still under discussion.”
NYCHA’s interim CEO, Lisa Bova-Hiatt, heralded Russ’ contributions in a statement released after this article’s initial publication.
“Greg Russ came to NYCHA at a critical juncture in the Authority’s history. The vision, acumen, and unflagging commitment he brought to NYCHA — honed through decades of strengthening public housing authorities across the country — were instrumental in putting NYCHA on solid footing,” said Bova-Hiatt. “The homes and communities of thousands of families across New York City are better because of Mr. Russ’ service and we are incredibly grateful for the leadership he demonstrated throughout his time here.”
Board vice-chair Victor Gonzalez, a NYCHA tenant, will serve as interim chair while City Hall, the U.S. Attorney for Southern District of New York, and HUD interview candidates to replace Russ. The mayor will then select from a list of approved candidates to fill the position.
Minneapolis to Marcy Avenue
Former Mayor Bill de Blasio lured Russ from his job running the Minneapolis Housing Authority in August 2019. As NYCHA chair and CEO, Russ was able to receive the outsize paycheck because it was funded by two levels of government: $240,728 from the city, and another $161,900 from HUD. He subsequently received modest cost-of-living increases awarded to all NYCHA executives.
The unusual HUD subsidy allowed Russ to finance a two-city lifestyle: he never moved his family from Minneapolis to New York, instead traveling back and forth over the next three years.
And for his time in New York, Russ leased an apartment in an exclusive Tribeca high-rise with doorman, heated pool and valet laundry service where one-bedroom apartments listed last week for $6,000.
His building boasts of “advanced health and safety protocols, including additional staff and cleaning, more frequent disinfecting, and EPA-listed products and signage” — a contrast with the average public housing building where toxic mold, lead paint and broken elevators are often part of daily life.
In his first two full years at NYCHA, Russ received a straight salary of $414,707, but in 2022 it rose more than $16,000 to $430,977, according to city payroll records. NYCHA spokesperson Barbara Brancaccio says Russ had received only about $7,000 in extra pay for moving and travel expenses during his tenure, and that he paid for the bulk of his commutes to and from the Midwest himself.
Mixed Report Card
NYCHA, by far the biggest public housing authority in the nation, with 177,000 apartments and 450,000 tenants, has long been an outlier in the way it pays its chair. Most housing authority chairs across the nation are volunteers, HUD officials note.
The decision to make New York’s chair voluntary comes out of an investigation by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney that documented years of mismanagement and coverup of squalid conditions and led to the appointment of a monitor in 2019 and an agreement to reshuffle top management.
In March 2021, NYCHA put forth a Transformation Plan that first broached the idea, noting that the authority “may propose that the Chair, as with all NYCHA Directors, become a part-time unpaid position appointed by the Mayor.”
After NYCHA split the CEO and chair positions in September, NYCHA began discussions with HUD, Adams and the U.S. Department of Justice about changing the chair’s role.
Russ arrived at NYCHA in the summer of 2019 at a particularly tumultuous time for the authority. Months earlier, former prosecutor Bart Schwartz had begun his work as monitor and the authority’s promised timeline for specific reforms kicked in.
During Russ’ tenure, NYCHA has made an aggressive effort to clean up lead paint from tens of thousands of apartments where young children live. NYCHA also succeeded in upgrading ventilation systems in dozens of developments in an effort to reduce the moisture buildup in bathrooms that triggers mold.
But a city-funded effort to upgrade hundreds of elevators that constantly go out of service has fallen way behind, while the number of unresolved resident repair requests has increased from 582,000 to 681,000 over the last year. The monitor also reported in September that NYCHA experienced a “significantly higher number of unplanned heating outages” in the 2021 and 2022 heating seasons from the prior two years.
Recently NYCHA officials admitted that they would not be able to meet the timeline on promised repairs that they agreed to in 2019, due to a huge shortfall in rent collection that occurred during the pandemic.
Russ’ biggest accomplishment was the approval in Albany of his “preservation trust” that will shift funding for 25,000 apartments over to federal housing vouchers known as Section 8, a shift that will allow the NYCHA-controlled trust to borrow millions for repairs via bond offerings.
The board that will oversee the trust has not been appointed and is not expected to be up and running until later this year, long after Russ’ expected final day in mid-February.
This article was updated on Jan. 25, 2023, at 5 p.m. to add a statement from NYCHA’s interim CEO.