De Blasio, Olatoye & others in 2015 (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)
Despite steadily shrinking federal support for public housing, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) has made significant gains in public safety and in balancing its annual operating budget under Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is up for reelection on Tuesday. His support for NYCHA, where about half a million low-income New Yorkers live, has set him apart from his predecessors, Michael Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani, neither of whom matched de Blasio’s financial and programmatic commitment to the city’s public housing authority and residents, according to documents and experts.
Early in his tenure, de Blasio and Shola Olatoye, the chair and CEO of NYCHA appointed by the new mayor in 2014, unveiled a major overhaul plan to help stabilize and modernize public housing in New York City. At the time, the authority was on the edge of a fiscal cliff, with billions in unmet capital needs and yearly deficits in operating expenses, with residents often living in substandard and inhumane conditions. The plan, which has shown success over three-plus years, has not been without its critics.
Despite signs of further improvement down the road, NYCHA continues to have major problems, including too many units still in disrepair, and there has been vocal pushback from residents concerning the administration’s willingness to lease NYCHA land to private developers. This is part of the “infill” program for underutilized property, wherein the city and its partners will construct mostly affordable housing, while raising additional revenue to benefit the public housing system.
Furthermore, some public housing advocates say that, while de Blasio’s additional financial support has been welcome, only a truly proportional dedication of resources will transform the city’s public housing into a state of good repair.
During this mayoral campaign, there has been little discussion of NYCHA, including of de Blasio’s record in attempting to improve conditions, services, and finances at its 328 developments around the five boroughs. Given both the acute needs and the administration’s attempts to address them, more scrutiny is necessary.
De Blasio’s First Steps
As a candidate in 2013, de Blasio diagnosed the crumbling public housing conditions and negative balance sheet as a management problem, vowing to replace NYCHA Chair John Rhea if elected. The mayor, then public advocate, also repeatedly criticized Mayor Bloomberg’s land lease program plan, which would lease public land to private developers and require that 20 percent of developments be dedicated to affordable housing. Like other de Blasio critiques of Bloomberg, he felt that Bloomberg was being too generous to wealthy real estate barons and not demanding enough benefit for communities.
De Blasio promised to emphasize health and safety repairs within the authority by eliminating NYCHA’s maintenance backlog and hiring a dedicated workforce able to perform substantive reforms, according to his One New York, Rising Together campaign booklet. He also promised to dedicate a portion of vacant NYCHA apartments to homeless families.
Upon taking office, de Blasio’s administration inherited a public housing emergency. With an annual operating deficit of $77 million and a roughly $17 billion capital need for infrastructure repairs, NYCHA had been depleted by 2014 through years of federal, state, and city disinvestment, all while its capital needs and operating costs continued to rise. The nation’s largest public housing authority -- including its hundreds of thousands of residents -- was in crisis.
“Half of our buildings were 60 years of age or older. We were facing a $17 billion capital deficit,” said Karina Totah, NYCHA Vice President for Strategic Initiatives, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “We had operating deficits for several years and a large vulnerable population of both seniors and young people.”
The agency also faced higher crime rates than surrounding areas, gaps in community programming, and accusations of financial mismanagement, not only in annual budgets, but in daily operations. For example, a 2012 Daily News report uncovered nearly $1 billion in unspent federal funds intended for repairs to the public housing stock. Reports in that vein, often in the Daily News, would continue into de Blasio’s term.
In addition, soon after taking his new office in 2014, Comptroller Scott Stringer released a series of audits and reports detailing unsatisfactory living conditions and poor financial management within NYCHA. This documentation helped put de Blasio on the spot to more fully address problems at the authority, and quickly.
Additional reports found that NYCHA kept apartments off rent rolls for an average of seven years while doing major repairs and that the authority drastically under-reported repair backlogs for the sake of record keeping.
De Blasio issued several immediate fixes before unveiling a major, sweeping plan. The mayor relieved the authority of its annual policing fees (roughly $52 million that the city had previously insisted NYCHA pay to the NYPD), began security camera installation at several housing developments, and allocated $101 million towards reducing crime in public housing developments. This announcement was quickly followed by the launch of the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety, a program designed to reduce violence in 15 NYCHA developments with high crime rates.
In February 2014, de Blasio also appointed Olatoye, former Vice President for Enterprise Community Partners, a nonprofit organization that finances and advocates for affordable housing, to lead NYCHA.
A year later, de Blasio and Olatoye released NextGeneration NYCHA, an ambitious, 10-year strategic plan designed to pull the authority out of debt and to address long unmet capital needs, while also enhancing quality of life for NYCHA residents. “The plan will save over ten years $4.6 billion in capital needs,” de Blasio said during the plan’s unveiling, “And on the expense side of the NYCHA budget, in the course of this plan we will generate a surplus of $230 million over the next decade.”
The authority’s operating budget achieved a surplus in both 2015 and 2016 and has no recent update to the 2011 estimate of $17 billion in unmet capital needs. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will cut a minimum of $35 million from the department’s budget this year, and potentially as much as $150 million, a possibly devastating loss for the authority.
NextGen NYCHA lays out guidelines for preserving public housing stock, presenting a land-lease program somewhat similar to Bloomberg’s, which has become the most controversial aspect of the turnaround effort. Other priorities in the plan include improving landlord services such as maintenance repairs and development safety, and engaging residents through job placement and broader social service resources.
An evaluation of de Blasio’s public housing record as he seeks a second term hinges on his administration’s execution of NextGen NYCHA.
Policing and Maintenance
Through the NextGen program and other initiatives, the de Blasio administration has sought to reduce crime, improve maintenance response, and increase energy efficiency within developments.
Crime within NYCHA developments became a focal point during de Blasio’s early tenure as city data showed increases in crime rates, up 31 percent in the first six months of the mayor’s term. In response to the upward trend, the Mayor and NYPD implemented the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety. Introduced in July 2014 and separate from the NextGen program, the plan provided additional safety measures in 15 of the authority’s highest crime developments. The program installed security infrastructure, provided broader access to employment programs and community centers, and has sought to strengthen communication between residents and police.
The program has been effective to a degree in reversing the upward trend of public housing crime rates. Violent crime within the 15 targeted developments decreased by 11.2 percent between 2014 and 2015, the program’s first year, according to a preliminary management report from the mayor’s office.
Developments have seen improvement over time, according to some NYCHA residents.
“The indication that things had begun to change was that we stopped hearing gunshots and I think in the last quarter there had been no gunshots reported in almost eight months,” said Geraldine Lamb, Castle Hill Residents Association President, in an interview in late October at the Bronx development.
While its first year was largely successful, bringing crime rates among the targeted developments to par with the rates of other developments, its achievements in 2016 were far more incremental according to a study from the Manhattan Institute. Overall crime rates continued to climb among non-MAP NYCHA developments while MAP locations’ rates stagnated. Meanwhile the number of violent crimes committed within MAP locations rose.
“At the time that MAP was rolled out with the combined package there was a dip in crime that then petered out,” said Alex Armlovich, author of the study. Armlovich expressed support for the city’s rollout of MAP-tested safety features in other developments despite these mixed results.
Lamb, of Castle Hill, expressed particular support for the community policing initiative, which recruits officers who have lived in public housing themselves or who have family members living in public housing. “They know what they’re dealing with and the people that live in public housing,” said Lamb. “And it’s working.”
Additional safety measures include the removal of sidewalk scaffolding and the installation of security cameras and lighting. The Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice conducted a study of the effect of light on crime in which 40 public housing developments received 400 exterior lights, the results of the study are set to be released later in the year. The mayor also announced the removal of eight miles of sidewalk shedding as part of ongoing safety efforts, in a July 2015 press conference. As of June 2017, the de Blasio administration had announced the installation of new security cameras at 22 developments and the upgrade of 38 existing camera sets.
NYCHA has long faced accusations of neglect over buildings in disrepair, conditions de Blasio condemned after spending a night in public housing with other Democratic primary candidates during the 2013 race. In the NextGeneration plan, de Blasio committed to faster repairs and more transparent metrics.
“Our goal, starting with a set of developments over the next year and then expanding out throughout all the developments of the housing authority, is to set a one-week timeline for basic, straightforward repairs,” said de Blasio at a press conference announcing the program in May 2015.
As of September 2017, the average wait time for basic maintenance repairs is four days according to NYCHA Metrics. A report from Comptroller Stringer revealed the unreliability of reported repair times in 2014, but found that 81.7 percent of repairs met the stated goal of a 7 day timeline for simple repairs. Still, the problems are staggering -- some larger housing developments have upwards of 2,500 open work orders.
These problems persist despite the introduction of the FlexOps program, designed to provide better repair service through flexible and staggered maintenance shifts, as well as the MyNYCHA app, which had saved the city $960,000, according to the NextGeneration two-year progress report, released May 2017. Part of NYCHA’s challenge has been adjusting work hours for its union labor force so that residents can have a better opportunity to be home to greet repair workers.
A comptroller report, examining maintenance and repairs from January 1, 2013 through July 31, 2014, unveiled a backlog of more than 50,000 repairs and a policy for “fixing” repairs for the purposes of record-keeping when residents weren’t home to allow maintenance into the room.
This practice of closing out repairs is still commonplace according to Lisa Kenner, Van Dyke Resident Association president. “Lately, I know people who said they were waiting for them and they never came, they closed the tickets out,” said Kenner, in an interview with the Gotham Gazette at the Brooklyn development.
“We’ve increased our efforts around quality assurance and quality control to make sure that we’re going in and checking on work orders that are complete to make sure that they are done and done well,” said Karina Totah, NYCHA Vice President for Strategic Initiatives. Totah pointed to positive progress in maintenance responses as a result of the MyNYCHA app and efforts to improve property management efficiency through programs including NextGeneration Operations, a subsection of NYCHA guidelines for improving landlord services.
Resident Lisa Kenner remains unhappy with the city’s approach. “If you have water leaks, they want to put bandaids on it,” said Kenner, who taught herself to wax and buff the floor of her own basement office, which doubles as a storage room for folding furniture and outdated computer monitors, she said. She doesn’t trust maintenance to take care of the room’s upkeep.
Facing a dire financial situation, the authority under de Blasio first looked to overturn legacy costs weighing down the budget. The largest among these were annual policing payments to the NYPD and PILOT fees, annual payments which take the place of property taxes for NYCHA. De Blasio removed NYPD payments from NYCHA’s budget in the earlier tenure and relieved the Authority of PILOT payments under the NextGeneration plan. These fees amounted to $70 million and $30 million respectively, according to a report from the mayor’s office.
Beyond these quick but significant relief measures, the NextGen plan prescribed more efficient rental and fee collection (low rates of rent and fee collection have been perpetual NYCHA challenges), advocated to maximize use of ground floor spaces and a consolidated central office workforce.
Efforts by new leadership showed some quick progress -- in both 2015 and 2016, NYCHA operated at a narrow surplus. Yet, a recent report from the Citizens Budget Commission (CBC) attributed this to changes in federal rent structure, increased federal operating subsidies, and increased city subsidies and support. “There really are a combination of factors that drove NYCHA’s financial improvement, NextGen NYCHA is a portion of that. It’s smaller than the effect of general changes and also actions taken by the city,” said Sean Campion, author of the CBC report, in an interview.
Revenue from rental collection also grew between 2015 and 2016, resulting in a collection of $5 million above the expected revenue according to the adopted budget for fiscal year 2017.
However, this growth is again largely due to a 2014 change in federal rent structures, requiring residents who choose to pay “flat rents” (rather than income-based rents) to cover 80 percent of the apartment’s fair market rent. Despite city efforts to improve collections, the monthly rent collection rate has decreased almost every month since September 2016, according to NYCHA Metrics.
According to NYCHA’s Final Agency Plan for Fiscal Year 2018, the current fiscal year, it has been successful thus far in maximizing the revenue and uses of ground floor spaces, generating $860,000 in new revenue from 19 new and 33 renewed leases for retail and professional uses.
There are still avenues for continued savings that the authority has yet to pursue. “On the expense side, their biggest piece of it is that their operating expenses on a per unit basis are relatively high and particularly when you compare them to privately managed rental buildings,” said Campion of CBC. In addition, despite repeated proposals for raising parking fees to the market rate, the city has thus far been unable to follow through, though Olatoye, the NYCHA CEO, has said that parking-related reforms are coming.
Looming over this recent progress are real and proposed federal cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. If proposals are approved, years of financial progress could be wiped out. “These cuts to HUD would strip nearly every dollar from public housing infrastructure and threaten our day-to-day operations,” Olatoye said in statement in May on the federal budget proposal.
Reforming Resident Services
While most landlords limit themselves to maintaining buildings and collecting rent, NYCHA sees itself, ultimately, as a social safety net. The average NYCHA resident remains in public housing for 22 years and makes $22,300 per year. On NYCHA’s website, the authority states that its mission “is to increase opportunities for low- and moderate-income New Yorkers.” This involves facilitating access to ancillary services, like community and senior centers, job training and placement, and broadband internet.
NYCHA receives no direct funding from the federal government to support local community programming. Instead, the agency uses funds from its operational budget to cover costs. With NYCHA as cash-strapped as it is, the NextGen plan includes outsourcing services provided by the agency, to nonprofits and other city agencies.
Part of this initiative involved transferring the management of 24 community centers and 17 senior centers to the Department of Youth and Community Development and the Department for the Aging.
Some residents were unhappy with the change. ”When they let that DYCD come in and take over the community center, it sucks!” said Lisa Kenner, president of the Van Dyke Houses Tenant Association. She complained that DYCD raised the daily fee for renting community center space, making it inaccessible to residents who need affordable areas to host parties, get-togethers, and other community events.
In addition to relying on outside parties to finance and run services previously done by NYCHA, the housing authority decided to create a 501c(3) nonprofit to leverage donations from private donors that could be used for community development and to engage in new public-private partnerships. The Fund for Public Housing announced in 2016 an ambitious goal of raising $200 million within its first three years.
More than a year-and-a-half later, the Fund had raised only a small portion of that, $1.5 million, as of this August, according to Olatoye, on a recent episode of What’s the [Data] Point?, a podcast by Gotham Gazette and Citizens Budget Commission. The nonprofit is forging ahead, though, and has partnered with donors on writing design guidelines for NYCHA buildings, constructing new playgrounds, and increasing resident access to free tax preparation programs. NYCHA and Fund for Public Housing leaders are encouraged, though, and hopeful that the Fund will continue to make steady progress and evenutally lure some major donors.
NextGen NYCHA also included a goal to increase job placements for residents to 4,000 annually by 2025. Before 2015, NYCHA had been placing approximately 2,000 residents each year in new jobs, according to NextGen.
Sideya Sherman, Executive Vice President for Community Engagement and Partnerships at NYCHA, explained that the NextGen approach involves connecting with approximately 60 outside job placement providers, administering their own training programs with grant funding, and expanding JobsPlus, a federal program.
“A really important piece of our strategy is not only connecting residents to external services, but attracting resources and services to NYCHA communities and on campus,” she said in an interview with Gotham Gazette. Between May 2015 and May 2017, NYCHA had found employment for 5,663 residents, an average of 2,832 residents per year.
Preserving Existing Housing Stock
As owner and manager of more than 320 developments, NYCHA is tasked with the preservation of almost 2,500 buildings. The authority, however, still faces the projected $17 billion bill for repairs across all properties (known as its “capital” needs, for things like roofs, boilers, and more).
As opposed to previous administrations, de Blasio has made significant financial commitments to public housing in New York City. In 2015, he committed $300 million over three years for roof repair across in-need NYCHA properties. In 2017, he committed another $1 billion over ten years for roofs.
“Years of federal and state disinvestment have led to deteriorating buildings, depriving tenants of the level of housing they deserve,” de Blasio said in a 2015 press release. “By making these critical investments in our aging NYCHA buildings, we are both protecting our residents – many of whom are children – and saving money spent on repairing these buildings.”
Notwithstanding the mayor’s financial commitment, the implementation of roof repairs across NYCHA properties has been uneven. In a June 2017 audit, Comptroller Stringer found that many NYCHA construction projects between January 2013 and November 2015 were ineffectively monitored. For example, NYCHA reported that an effort to repair roofs at the Lafayette Houses in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn was successful, despite no records of the agency inspecting the property. This construction project was funded using some of the first $300 million pledged by the mayor earlier that year. Efforts in 2016 and 2017 have yet to be examined in detail.
De Blasio’s financial pledges to NYCHA occurred amid creative efforts by NYCHA to leverage private funds to repair and renovate its properties. The agency aimed to enroll a substantial portion of its developments into the recently established federal program entitled RAD (Rental Assistance Demonstration). NYCHA has already run a sizeable Section 8 voucher program, which is funded through federal dollars. Expanding that and adding the RAD program have let private developers and management companies invest capital in NYCHA developments, with NYCHA maintaining ultimate ownership of all NYCHA properties.
The results have been encouraging to some. Using federal relief funds from Hurricane Sandy, tax credits, state bonds, and private equity, NYCHA was able to refurbish 1,395 apartments, raise 24 boiler rooms to roof level to avoid future floods, and construct floodwalls to protect against future storms at the Ocean Bay development in Far Rockaway.
At least one resident of Ocean Bay is happy with the changes. Rita Joseph used to be “embarrassed” to show people her apartment, according to an article in New York Magazine. Now, she confidently strolls through her building’s spotless lobby.
Perhaps the most controversial part of the NextGen NYCHA plan has been the “infill” projects, or the leasing of NYCHA land to private developers, to raise money for repairs while helping the mayor meet his goal of creating and preserving 300,000 affordable housing units by 2026.
The infill projects called for in the NextGen plan consist of two types: 100% affordable housing and 50/50 developments, where half the units are market-rate and half have affordability caps on the rent. As of now, there are nine scheduled 100% affordable projects and four 50/50 projects in the works.
Susan J. Popkin, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, said in an interview with Gotham Gazette that NYCHA’s infill strategy is unique compared to other American housing authorities. The viability for NYCHA boils down to the inflated cost of real estate in New York City, something other authorities do not have at their disposal.
Critics say that these projects are lagging behind or that they are inappropriate altogether, and a dangerous step toward privatization.
On the other hand, The Daily News recently published an editorial criticizing NYCHA for its slow place in putting these developments into practice.
NYCHA, however, says its advances are encouraging. “We are really happy with our progress. I don’t think we would say we would be behind,” said Ilana Maier, Deputy Communications Officer at NYCHA.
Some residents at developments targeted for these structure are unsatisfied, though critics don’t provide viable alternatives that can help NYCHA bring in new revenue to dig itself out of a hole with which the state and federal governments do not seem concerned.
In reference to the proposed 50/50 project at Holmes Towers, Alicia Harris, a resident of the Upper East development, said to DNAinfo, "When you talk about 45 stories, where are the kids gonna play? It will take away space for the kids."
Charlene Nimmons, president of the Wyckoff Gardens Tenants Association from 2003 to 2015, echoed Harris’ dissatisfaction in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “You’re pushing it down our throats,” she said in response to the proposed plan to build a 50/50 building on two parking lots in the Wyckoff Gardens development.
And Lisa Kenner, president of the Van Dyke Houses Tenants Association, criticized the two proposed 100% affordable housing projects on her development’s land. “They just want to sell stuff, instead of sitting down and looking at it.”
Moving Forward with Fingers Crossed
Despite criticism of NYCHA’s infill development, ongoing problems with day-to-day management, and the huge capital need, experts have been impressed with de Blasio’s increased commitment and strategic approach to public housing. Handed an almost impossible situation—given the lack of federal funding and conditions at NYCHA—his administration has made progress in making the authority financially solvent, at least operationally, with some hope for the future.
“Given the funding constraints, they are doing the best they can,” said Popkin of the Urban Institute.
Others have also lauded the administration’s engagement with public housing residents, as opposed to his predecessors. “He has made it a point to visit public housing,” said Nicholas Bloom, Associate Professor at the New York Institute of Technology and a NYCHA scholar, to Gotham Gazette. “His office has been engaged.”
And some NYCHA residents, while acknowledging the limitations on the mayor, have been generally positive. “I believe that he has kept his promises to the best of his ability because he has a City Council to deal with and all of the state elected officials to deal with, including the governor,” said Geraldine Lamb, president of the Castle Hill Residents Association.
However, praise for NYCHA’s progress comes with caveats. Despite de Blasio’s financial commitments, public housing advocates demand greater city investment. “That kind of financial commitment has not been made by his office,” explained Bloom, referring to the type of dedication of funds toward NYCHA that would really shock the system.
Because NYCHA is technically a state authority and not historically funded by the city, the agency receives scraps from the city budget, rather than a significant allocation of resources. As part of NYCHA’s $3.26 billion operating budget for 2017, $1.9 billion is provided by the federal government, $1 billion from tenant rental revenue, and another $200 million from New York State, according to a report on NYCHA’s finances issued by the City Council; while $81.9 million comes from the city government, just 2.5% of NYCHA’s total 2017 budget. That’s why Bloom recommends that the state government should “turn NYCHA into a city agency,” to incentivize the city to better allocate funds for the struggling housing authority.
Short of that, the city is moving forward with its plans, and hoping for good news from Washington, D.C. and Albany. “NextGen NYCHA is a pretty ambitious plan,” said Sean Campion of Citizens Budget Commission, “and they’re making relatively good progress towards it in a really difficult political environment.”
by Grace Dixon and Ben Weiss
Note - this article has been updated.