Gotham Gazette Mon, 23 Oct 2017 07:46:49 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Dissecting Mayor De Blasio's Record As He Seeks Reelection Mayor de Blasio Chirlane McCray City Hall Reelection Parade

Mayor Bill de Blasio & First Lady Chirlane McCray (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

As Mayor Bill de Blasio, a first-term Democrat, seeks reelection this fall, a close examination of his record is essential. De Blasio came into power promising to address inequlality in a variety of forms, including income, educational, policing, racial, and opportunity inequities he identified during his 2013 campaign. In this year's election de Blasio is running in part on his record, which is headlined by the implementation of his campaign promise to provide universal pre-kindergarten for the city's four-year-olds. But, there is much more to the mayor's record than UPK, which has clearly been his biggest success.

In this series, Gotham Gazette, with election coverage partners City Limits and WNYC radio, examines de Blasio's record on a variety of important issues. While this is not completely exhaustive, it should be helpful to voters and others seeking to evaluate de Blasio this fall. With our partners, Gotham Gazette will release articles and audio pieces on the following aspects of de Blasio's record -- those already published are linked below.

Election Day is Tuesday, November 7.

  • Economy & Jobs (Gotham Gazette, coming soon)
  • Poverty & Inequality (Gotham Gazette, coming soon)
  • Budgeting & Fiscal Health (Gotham Gazette, coming soon)
  • NYCHA (Gotham Gazette, coming soon)
  • Environment & Sustainability (City Limits, coming soon)

More to read/view/hear:

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Dissecting Mayor De Blasio's Record As He Seeks Reelection Sun, 22 Oct 2017 23:26:52 +0000
City Hall Pushes Back on Proposal that Hits Core Tension of Housing Plan housing rally sign via nyccomptroller

City Hall ralliers with Metro-IAF-NY (photo: @NYCComptroller)

Thousands of New Yorkers, many of them residents of public housing, braved the rain on Monday, October 9, to rally outside City Hall to push Mayor Bill de Blasio to adopt a new direction for his affordable housing plan. Their alternative proposal, which had been presented by the leading advocates to the mayor ten days prior, calls for a radical investment in building new housing for low-income families, especially seniors, which critics say has largely been left out of the mayor’s current housing strategy.

But there’s disagreement over whether the plan is feasible and if the city, without state or federal resources, can commit to a sweeping addendum to an already ambitious affordable housing plan.

The leaders of the community proposal and rally, reverends from Brooklyn, achieved significant attention for their plan and support from elected officials, in part because their critique of de Blasio’s housing program touched the core tension of what some see as a solid, fairly moderate approach, but others call too timid to address the affordability crisis facing the city and its residents and, in some cases, a catalyst of detrimental gentrification.

De Blasio’s Housing New York plan aims to build about 80,000 new affordable units and preserve another 120,000 by 2024. By June 30, the end of fiscal year 2017, the city had financed 77,651 units -- 25,342 or 33 percent new units and 52,309 or 67 percent preserved. The mayor has declared the plan on time and within budget and earlier this year he also announced an additional $1.9 billion investment to create 10,000 more affordable housing for low-income earners, including 5,000 more dedicated senior housing units, for a total of 15,000 senior units under the plan. There are also projects in the pipeline to build 10,000 new units on underutilized NYCHA property.

But the organizers of Monday’s rally -- leaders of the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation and East Brooklyn Congregations, made up of church-going members, homeowners associations, schools, and senior centers -- say the plan isn’t building enough housing quickly enough, particularly for those at the lowest income tiers, and is ignoring the need for more senior housing. Their plan seeks to address these deficiencies, though the de Blasio administration says it is already doing most of what is being sought in the plan, while other aspects are not possible at this time.

Of the 77,651 units financed by the administration so far, 11,505 were for families of three making less than $25,770 a year, or 30 percent on the area median income (AMI), and another 13,277 were for families making between $25,771-$42,950 (31-50 percent AMI).

The Metro IAF-EBC proposal specifically calls for 15,000 new senior housing units on underutilized NYCHA land, which it foresees would allow 50,000 people on NYCHA waitlists and in homeless shelters to move into apartments vacated by those seniors. The plan also advocates for refurbishing NYCHA developments across the city. Its proponents, while vehemently behind it, note that it is a starting point for discussion with the mayor and his team.

Mayor de Blasio, in a letter on October 7 responding to the coalition, wrote that he shares “the same values and goals: to build safe, clean, and affordable housing for all of our families at a faster rate than we have ever done.”

“I also agree with you that we have to make tough choices if we’re going to turn a corner in this crisis, and invest in our original affordable housing: NYCHA,” he added, before agreeing to collaborate, in a general sense, on the coalition’s ideas. He made no specific promises.

In an appearance on NY1 the night of the rally, Metro IAF-EBC coalition leader Rev. Shaun Lee, pastor of Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church in Brooklyn, said de Blasio’s response had been “disrespectful” so far. “They tried to placate us but they’re not really taking the plan seriously,” he told anchor Errol Louis.

Rev. David Brawley, from St. Paul Community Baptist Church, said on the show that the mayor had promised them a “thoughtful response” that did not seem forthcoming. “We don’t consider a form letter, just because it has a seal on it and a signature, a thoughtful response,” he said. “We think a commitment is a thoughtful response. Even a question, a date to meet again, is a thoughtful response. Not simply a form letter.”

The coalition has prominent allies, including Comptroller Scott Stringer and Public Advocate Letitia James, both of whom spoke at the group’s City Hall rally. A spokesperson for Stringer told Gotham Gazette that the comptroller believes the coalition proposal is financially feasible in conjunction with the administration’s current plan. The spokesperson did not elaborate when asked for details.

The de Blasio administration, although agreeing with the principle behind the plan, disagrees with that notion. Some of the ideas in the plan, said spokesperson Melissa Grace, are currently also being implemented.

“We agree with the group’s goals, and are already advancing them in many places across the city,” said Grace, in an email. “Deeper affordability? Those very lowest-income apartments now represent nearly 30 percent of our housing plan. Building on underused NYCHA land for seniors? We’ve closed on two senior projects, with more coming. We welcome the chance to work together to accomplish more.”

Among the pitfalls of the plan, the administration points out, are that it would require heavy subsidies from the city -- building only deeply affordable housing is extremely expensive -- and it ignores the need to build middle-income housing, something de Blasio regularly explains he is steadfastly committed to. Indeed, the proposal predicts creating 15,000 new affordable housing units would cost about $3.83 billion, including about $1.875 billion in city subsidies, through the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).

NYCHA also has a $17 billion capital backlog, and the advocates have been vague about how the city could address that without federal or state funding, other than insisting that the mayor must get “creative and imaginative” with funding solutions. “The money is there. The question is, where’s the leadership,” Brawley said in a phone interview. The coalition says the city must make good on NYCHA capital repairs so that, if its plan moves forward, people want to move into the NYCHA apartments that seniors would vacate as they move into the new homes being built, often into smaller units than they may now occupy, allowing larger families to move in.

The proposal did identify at least $225 million each year in new revenue sources the city could use -- $40 million in excess revenue from the Battery Park City Authority and $185 million paid by NYCHA to the city for sanitation, water and other services. A Metro IAF spokesperson also emphasized, as have its leaders, that the pace of NYCHA “infill” projects -- like the senior projects Grace referred to -- has been too slow and that four years into the affordable housing program, few have broken ground. Grace later pointed out that the $40 million was already committed to affordable housing projects, including in communities with NYCHA developments. 

One aspect of the plan also proposes an alternative financing model for new developments through tax credits, tax-exempt bonds and Section 8 vouchers for 100 percent of the units. Using Section 8 vouchers, which are limited, at new projects on NYCHA land is also problematic, according to the administration. If Section 8 vouchers are applied, the city would require a waiver from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to allocate units to current NYCHA residents. HUD has in the past has approved an allocation of 25 percent for an area the size of a community board, according to City Hall. The Metro IAF spokesperson said, however, that these provisions of the plan are not necessarily red lines and that they are open to change.

The crucial point of the plan, said Brawley, is that the city needs to move beyond incremental increases in affordable units. “The city’s gonna have to work to do a critical mass of units. A few hundred units here or there will not do,” he said. He brushed aside the issues built into the system of constructing new housing -- the city’s process for competitive bids and the lengthy review of land use applications.

Public Advocate James, who brought Brawley to the general election mayoral debate on Tuesday night as her guest, has also recently started calling for a much more ambitious overall program of building new affordable housing, putting forth ideas like building more over rail yards across the five boroughs.

It remains to be seen whether de Blasio will be amenable to implementing some of the ideas from Brawley’s coalition -- Metro IAF has worked with the city to build multiple affordable housing complexes before. In the meantime, Brawley and Lee have vowed a sustained advocacy campaign. “We’ve increased pressure on mayors in the past to make things happen,” Brawley said. “And that’s what we’ll do. We’re going to see this plan through.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated.

City Hall Pushes Back on Proposal that Hits Core Tension of Housing Plan Thu, 12 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Pushing New Affordable Housing Plan, Activists Plan Massive City Hall Rally affordable housing

 De Blasio unveils his housing plan (photo: Ed Reed)

As elected officials and candidates march in the annual Columbus Day parade on Monday, a separate gathering of members of church congregations, senior centers, schools, and homeowners associations will convene outside City Hall to present an affordable housing plan that they believe is a viable alternative to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s current program.

The coalition of Metro Industrial Areas Foundation and East Brooklyn Congregations plans to lead 5,000 people in the rally on Monday to push the mayor to adopt their proposal. “Monday is about a plan that we have vetted and that we think is the right plan for the city,” said coalition leader Reverend David Brawley, the pastor of St. Paul Community Baptist Church, in a phone interview Friday.

Brawley and his partners recently confronted de Blasio about their plan at a town hall in East New York, just after having presented the plan to him three days prior, at which time the mayor said he had already said he hoped to have an answer by the time of their Columbus Day rally and was sticking to that answer. The proposal hits on key criticisms of the de Blasio administration’s approach to affordable housing: that it doesn’t go far enough, especially with regard to the poorest and neediest New Yorkers.

The proposal envisions creating 15,000 units of senior housing on underutilized NYCHA land and vacant city-owned lots within four years. That, in turn, would free up space in NYCHA developments to house 50,000 people who currently sit on waitlists or live in shelters, according to the plan, which includes detailed development costs and financing mechanisms for deeply affordable housing, including more city subsidies. Aside from the housing plan, the advocates will also push the city to criminally prosecute predatory landlords.

The coalition is also calling for “top-to-bottom rehabilitation” of NYCHA developments to ensure that public housing residents live in quality homes. NYCHA has faced decades of underinvestment, at the city, state, and federal levels, and currently has a nearly $18 billion capital need for infrastructure upgrades. Under de Blasio, the city has invested much more in NYCHA and is implementing a turnaround plan that has helped stabilize its operating budget, though astronomical capital costs remain.

“We’re not naive,” said Brawley, “We know its an $18 billion need. But the feds won’t do it, the state won’t do it. We need city leadership. We’re gonna have to be far more creative and imaginative.”

The de Blasio administration has, to a degree, turned around the public housing authority’s abysmal operations and financing through the NextGeneration NYCHA program, under the leadership of NYCHA Chair and CEO Shola Olatoye. For the first time in years, the authority cleared its operating deficit, and has been breaking ground on public-private partnerships to build new developments, referred to as “infill,” on NYCHA land. The administration has announced plans to create 100 percent affordable housing on underutilized property on nine NYCHA sites and 50 percent affordable housing on four sites. A separate nonprofit called the Fund for Public Housing has also been raising private philanthropic donations to support the cash-strapped agency and recently launched an online crowdfunding portal to supplement sustainability projects.

But Brawley believes these efforts have been insufficient. “The current plan, as well intentioned as it might be, is too slow, it’s too little and very shortly it’s gonna be too late,” he said.

He also said the mayor’s affordable housing plan -- which involves creating and preserving 200,000 units of affordable housing in ten years -- does not benefit those communities and populations that face the most dire need for housing. “It’s not reaching people who need it the most,” he said. “Not much has happened so far at all. So they can scrap it and put all options on the table.”

Since 2014, the administration touts having created or preserved 77,651 affordable homes, with 24,293 financed in fiscal year 2017, which ended June 30. Of those 24,293 homes, 40 percent were for a family of three with an annual income of less than $43,000, while 4,014 were for the lowest tier, a family making less than $26,000, and advocates have been pushing the city to create more units at these levels of deep affordability.

Brawley’s church is located in East New York, one of the few neighborhoods where the administration has managed to pass a comprehensive rezoning plan that involves changing land use rules to allow more density and encourage the creation of affordable housing, along with other economic development objectives. The plan was met with significant criticism from community groups that argued it did not reach the deep affordability needed for one of the poorest districts in the city. “A lot of times, it feels like plans are done to the community,” said Brawley, raising an oft-repeated criticism that the administration does little to incorporate community voices in such rezonings (the current East Harlem rezoning proposal faces opposition for much the same reason).

[Related: Nonprofit Linked To NYCHA Creates Crowdfunding Portal For Sustainability Projects]

Brawley and other leaders met with Mayor de Blasio last week at Gracie Mansion to present their plan. On Monday, at the mayor’s town hall in East New York, Brawley asked the mayor for an answer, standing with about 20 coalition members. De Blasio joked that the wheels of government did not move that fast but promised to have a response before the rally.

By Friday afternoon, the mayor had yet to provide one. 

“We’re hopeful that he’ll be a man of his word,” Brawley said. “We’re hoping for a thoughtful and serious response to a serious plan. We’re expecting a commitment to affordability, to our seniors, to our community.”

And if the mayor’s answer in unsatisfactory? “We’ll do what we have to do to change his mind,” he said.

Mayoral spokesperson Melissa Grace said in an email Saturday, "We are big supporters of building affordable housing, including senior housing on underutilized NYCHA property. We’ve taken that fight on across the city and welcome the organizing and partnership of this and any group pressing to deepen those efforts. We look forward to working together.”

Rev. Shaun Lee, pastor of Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant, hopes Monday’s rally will impress upon the mayor the need to prioritize deeper levels of affordability. “Time has proven, when the mayor is passionate about something, he does what he needs to do to get it done, we saw that with universal pre-kindergarten,” he said. “We want him to be just as passionate about real affordable housing.”

Public Advocate Letitia James and Comptroller Scott Stringer are expected to attend the rally as well. James recently suggested that the administration needs to reexamine options for building new affordable housing on a larger scale. At an October 3 news conference, Gotham Gazette asked Mayor de Blasio if his administration had considered doing so. “We look for every opportunity and we are constantly asking ourselves, ‘Can we in some way improve upon the existing effort?’” he said. But he expressed skepticism about implementing a new building program in the absence of state or federal aid.

“Let’s be honest about this...We’re probably stuck right now through 2020 with effectively no new housing aid from Washington,” de Blasio said. “And then the state really hasn’t delivered on any of the programs they said they were going to create for us. So we’re on our own, anxious to do more but I don’t know where the resources would be for something really big at this point. We’ll keep looking for them though.”

Asked about the housing plan from Metro Industrial Areas Foundation and East Brooklyn Congregations, Stringer said in a statement, “We're no doubt facing a crisis, and we need to use every tool in the kit to provide relief. We need housing that's actually affordable — and we need to protect those long-time residents who raised their families, played by the rules, and helped build their communities to stay in them. That means protecting our seniors, modernizing NYCHA, and ensuring that we deliver a city that is fair to all.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated to include comment from a mayoral spokesperson.

Pushing New Affordable Housing Plan, Activists Plan Massive City Hall Rally Fri, 06 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
With Federal Help, A Big Project Reset Shows the Way at NYCHA rad 1

This is the second in a two-part series on transformations and experiments happening at NYCHA. Read part one: At NYCHA, A Small Project-High Concept Reset.

The conversion of the Ocean Bay (Bayside) project, housing 4,000 Rockaways residents, to private management through the federal Housing and Urban Development’s Residence Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program is far advanced. Ocean Bay flooded badly during Superstorm Sandy and has been on temporary boilers since the floods. While the damage was most severe to the mechanical systems rather than apartments, lobbies, elevators, or interior hallways, post-Sandy the complex continued to decline with problems of trash, leaking ceilings, and more.

Ocean Bay is also isolated: close to the beach and other housing projects but not much else. There isn’t a decent grocery store, or much of any stores or community services, within walking distance. But there are assets, if you know where to look.

The first major asset is the 1,395 apartments in 24 towers, nearly all still occupied by now former NYCHA families. Livable apartments in hot-market New York City are attractive opportunities, particularly if they are, as is the case here, delivered without an underlying mortgage. To simply develop the equivalent number of housing units might costs as much as $750 million (1,400 units at $400,000 each), take years of permits, incur many delays, etc.

Similar dilapidated public housing units would be less valuable in other cities, and many towers of similar scale and style have been destroyed across the country, but New York is different because of the demand for all housing, public or private.

The second major asset is the multiple set of government subsidies available to the developer. RDC Development, a joint venture between MDG Design + Construction and Wavecrest Management Team, has borrowed money in private markets that might not be available in less desirable housing markets. Most of the $560 million in renovation funding, including private loans, is also secured by the government including a future role for Section 8 (for operating support), FEMA (resiliency for future storms), federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits (attracting private-sector lending), New York State’s Housing Finance Agency (state-secured financing), and NYSERDA (energy conservation).

When you put all the layered subsidies on top of mortgage free units, you start to understand private-sector interest in these conversions. The developer expects to collect developer fees and some construction profits; the management company, Wavecrest, will also be able to collect management fees in the long term if all goes well.

It would be wrong, however, to view this conversion as easy money. The developer is taking a major risk on the current tenants as the future rent returns plus government subsidies will have to be sufficient to operate the buildings, maintain them, pay management fees, and cover the debt service. The developer/management will also have to keep NYCHA management happy in the long term, including using NYCHA waiting lists for future tenants, despite whatever shifting political winds may come along. And no one knows what will happen to federal housing subsidy programs in the coming years.

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Redesigning What Matters First
The layout of the complex is moderately attractive by NYCHA standards. The four central towers are just nine stories tall each, so most of the apartments at Ocean Bay are located in the 20 six-story buildings flanking the central high rises. The grounds, despite having flooded, boast mature London Plane trees. The complex was moderately updated during the Hope VI process two decades ago including some cosmetic improvements to the grounds, elevator lobbies, and apartments.

The apartments are decent size by NYCHA standards and quite a few are very large (five bedrooms). The developer has a solid eye to what matters for resident satisfaction. Some of the original apartments were in very poor shape, with severe water damage, but most apartments have required upgrades and moderate renovation rather than gutting. The developer is thus switching out cabinets, laying down new vinyl strip floors, updating bathrooms, patching ceilings, and so forth. Current apartment configurations will remain as is. The apartments turn out respectable as a result of these modernizations; costs and complexity remain within the parameters of a renovation project.

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Big-ticket, long-term quality of life repairs are the focus of building-wide renovation. The developer is adding a more reliable and efficient heating system (on the roof to avoid future floods), new roofs, new windows, lintel brick repointing, lobby renovations, solar panels, and a protective berm and water retention swales. The developer is deferring cosmetic exterior additions and extensive landscape plans, which are still planned, until the site has been stabilized and any unexpected problems are addressed.

Delivering quality basics today means steam-cleaning and shining up existing floors and glazed brick halls inherited from NYCHA, widening the trash chutes that often overflowed, and running an expensive, and more efficient, heating system along those hallways. It means new windows that are similar in look to the old ones, but open more easily to help aid air circulation. It means new cabinets that provide an immediate sense of improvement. It means a protective berm for future floods and resilient electrical system. It is these investments that will distinguish the project in terms of livability from other postwar NYCHA projects in the years to come.

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The private management has also dispensed with NYCHA’s expensive labor system. This change has financial implications (lower operating costs) in the long term. Wavecrest, an experienced property management company, is now in charge of the entire complex—from rent collection to general maintenance. NYCHA employees opted to be moved to other NYCHA properties rather than transition to Wavecrest which would have meant more modest benefits, looser work rules (under a new union), and higher expectations.

The aim of the renovation and new management is to reset the tenant-management relationship and collect rent more consistently than NYCHA by being a better property manager. Wavecrest’s management fees, and the financial security of the property, is dependent upon steady rent collection. If Wavecrest can maintain higher standards in the long term, the project can enter a new era of stability. So far, says the developer, the rental collection under private management has been meeting expectations. It should be noted that the developer cannot, like Mitchell Lama conversions, rent empty apartments at market rents. This project thus retains its deep affordability for the foreseeable future.

Families accustomed to NYCHA’s de facto tolerance for late or no payment, and significant amounts of problematic behavior in courtyards and hallways, will need to adjust to private sector standards. The signs are encouraging that the new environment is already improving the quality of life. The developer reports reductions in the level of graffiti and other costly damage.

The developer is not, however, relying on resident satisfaction alone. Ocean Bay is massive, at 33 acres, with many entrances, stairwells, hallways, etc. It is also isolated and the neighborhood retains an air of disinvestment. The developer, per consultant advice, plans to install an electronic fob system for entry and movement through lobbies and other building private spaces, typical of market-rate buildings. In addition, 400 cameras will be installed across the site. These will be actively monitored by a private security company out-of-state. Security staff observing project activities will not only be able to report problems to the police, but will be able to speak directly to people caught on camera through a broadcast system. The aim of this “voice of god” is to help tenants feel the management presence -- in a good way, we hope.

There are plenty of additional opportunities for upgrades. NYCHA and the developer decided to delay but not rule out infill development of large open spaces within the project. Ocean Bay could benefit from additional housing or commercial operations that would enliven the area. Additional affordable housing units would also be welcome. In Europe, for instance, large and isolated public housing projects have been infilled with a mix of subsidized, market, and retail buildings to reduce the isolation and create more lively communities. Yet Ocean Bay has so many upfront issues that stabilizing the project as a living space came first. Infill is also politically controversial and can be a distraction. Without any additions, Ocean Bay already offers tenants a higher standard of living, but will also remain both geographically and socially isolated for the time being. The beach is, however, just a few blocks away.

This is the second in a two-part series on transformations and experiments happening at NYCHA. Read part one: At NYCHA, A Small Project-High Concept Reset.

Nicholas Dagen Bloom is an Associate Professor at NYIT and author of “Public Housing That Worked.” Matthias Altwicker, AIA, is an associate professor of architecture at NYIT and principal and founder of Studio A+H.

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With Federal Help, A Big Project Reset Shows the Way at NYCHA Thu, 28 Sep 2017 22:04:59 +0000
At NYCHA, A Small Project-High Concept Reset rad 1

Why on earth would private companies be interested in renovating and running public housing in New York? From the headlines about conditions and crime, and deferred maintenance in the billions, it is hard to imagine why private interests would want to touch a NYCHA housing project. Yet the conversion to private management is well underway and NYCHA has proposed the conversion of thousands of additional units to Section 8/private management. Two articles consider strategies underway for both small and large projects visited during 2016-2017. The following is the first of the two, with the second to be published on Friday, September 29.

In the heart of the Bronx’s Melrose district, known for its successful program of affordable housing, an experiment crucial to the future of New York City is underway. The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), private developers, and designers have remodeled a public housing tower block, Bronxchester Houses, for another generation of deeply subsidized living. By embracing high-rises, rather than demolishing towers, the city is swimming against the national tide of public housing destruction. With so many New York City residents in NYCHA housing developments (at least 400,000 people), and so much of that high-rise housing decaying, the outcome of the experiment matters more than ever.

Bronxchester Houses in the South Bronx, with 208 apartments, is representative of the design strategy for six small sites, with 875 apartments total, recently transitioned into a public-private partnership. At Campos I, another of the six, a similar strategy is in the process of implementation.

Bronxchester, Campos I, and the other sites had been managed by NYCHA for decades, even though they were always Section 8 funded projects that normally would have been managed by the private sector. Following a 2013 request for proposals, NYCHA entered into a long-term agreement with Triborough Partners, the development team of L&M Development Partners (a well-known affordable housing developer and manager in the city) with Preservation Development Partners, that put the private developers in charge of rehabilitating and maintaining buildings on the six NYCHA sites in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. The renovation was financed through a combination of public and private financing including tax-exempt city bonds.

Armed with a relatively robust budget for a small project, and freed from many NYCHA and federal public housing guidelines and rules, the development team and the designers rethought the Bronxchester project from the ground up.

The architecture and branding firm GDS led a design intervention big enough that Bronxchester now looks more like private affordable or even market-rate housing than it does a typical NYCHA tower. GDS designed giant gray frames, made of Ecotone-panels, that were applied around the edges of the buildings’ façades. Intended to bring down the scale of buildings, the frames stop two floors above ground level, with bases of the buildings painted gray. The renovation also provided larger windows for ground-floor community spaces.

GDS principal Michael Kirschmann told us that while “people dismiss affordable housing as not cool...there are a lot of opportunities to be thoughtful.” Indeed, the Bronxchester building looks different, and better, both close-up and far away. The building’s new contemporary look complements its neighbor, the well-known below-market housing development Via Verde, designed by Dattner Architects and Grimshaw Architects and built in 2012. Bronxchester’s exterior renovations, it should be noted, are subject to much more strict fire codes than London had in place before the tragic Grenfell fire.

At Bronxchester, the rebranding strategy continues inside. OCV, the architect of record for the projects, designed straightforward interior renovations that aim to generate a pride of place and “market” feeling for buildings typically outfitted with standard-issue NYCHA furnishings, long in need of repair. New kitchens and bathrooms, along with integrated heating-cooling window units, were installed in all apartments. New flooring, paint, tile, and lighting brightened up hallways.

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The tenants are also benefitting from bright, ground floor laundry rooms, glass-enclosed lobbies, and spruced up community spaces for meetings and parties. New elevators and roofs were installed to address essential quality of life issues.

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The strategies make the most of good looking off-the-shelf products (light fixtures, vinyl tile, ceramic tile) typical in hotels and market apartment buildings that NYCHA has usually avoided because of their lack of durability. The private managers simply intend to replace these elements as they are damaged, factoring these replacement costs into operating expenses. The strategy opens up a much wider range of possible design solutions.

The most striking aspect of the renovation is the transformed courtyard. Landscape architect Joanna Pertz wanted the site’s open spaces to feel “safe but free.” Her first instinct at Bronxchester was to make the site as open as possible to the adjacent neighborhood. After residents told her they wanted a defined semi-private space, she created a final design that “hardens the edge, and opens up the center.”

Her landscapes, most of which are for residents and their guests only, are designed with zones for different age groups. She imagines, for instance, preteens sitting and drawing on the amphitheater steps, teenagers playing basketball at the new full-sized court, and seniors watching the action from afar, in an area protected by trees. Where there was once 7,000 square feet of play space at Bronxchester, there is now a 24,000 square foot courtyard.


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Many of the architectural decisions address security rather than looks. At Bronxchester, for instance, management gated the interior spaces described above, which were previously open to the street, and increased exterior lighting, particularly at entry and gathering spaces. Tenants now use key fobs to access the buildings and private outdoor areas. Increased funding for operations allows private security staff to be on site at the entrance for nearly all hours of the day, including most of the night. Cameras also keep an eye on interior and exterior spaces. Gating reduced community access, but the enhanced tenants’ sense of safety and new renovations make the ground plan more intensively used by residents and their guests.

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Tenant leaders have seen a difference since security was increased. Patricia Lamonda, Tenant Association President at Bronxchester Houses, said, “Seniors are sitting outside and getting fresh air. Now that we have security, tenants don’t have to watch drug dealers coming into their building and trying to sell. The problem is the people who are not on the leases.”

There is still some ground-level space accessible to the general public, but it is better designed than before. Neighbors and residents now mingle in the unsecured areas in front of the building. These public areas, in fact, were also redesigned with better seating, lighting, and landscaping. They are also observable from security, making them more attractive to most tenants. Bronxchester, and other sites like Campos Plaza I, have also benefitted from surrounding neighborhood investments, both public and private, that have contributed to public safety and neighborhood livability.

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Bronxchester is now managed by C+C Apartment Management, L+M Development Partner’s management subsidiary, which has increased on-site maintenance and management staff at all sites. The small NYCHA staff that was on site before the renovations was relocated to other sites. New, responsive management contrasts with what tenant leaders characterize as NYCHA’s “band-aid approach.”

With C+C now in charge of operations, tenant leaders describe living with the same regulations as they did under NYCHA, but with greater enforcement. While manager and tenants alike feel the new management has improved tenants’ lives, C+C has also helped to restore tenant faith so that rent can be regularly collected.

Triborough and C+C must still comply with applicable Section 8 and LIHTC rental management regulations under the terms of their 25-year contract. Tenant rents, as a result, have not increased and will remain at their current (low) levels. L+M also gave payment plans to tenants who owed back rent payments. In interviews, the private managers made clear that rent collection is a priority.

While the improvements at Bronxchester are encouraging, the long-term impacts of the public-private agreement are unknown for resident families, especially given the current federal administration. The same type of vigilance housing advocates apply to NYCHA will probably need to be applied to the private managers in the long term.

Early successes at renovated NYCHA sites like Bronxchester come not from one strategy, but from a combination of architectural upgrades, improved management, and expanded security, all made possible by the increased subsidies opened up through the Triborough public-private agreement.

The tenants we spoke with were all thrilled finally to have well-maintained apartments and common spaces, responsive management, and safe, well-designed outdoor spaces, all without having their rents increased. Bronxchester shows what is possible with increased investment for housing rehabs and room for design experimentation. It also gives the chance to evaluate existing regulations. With NYCHA’s 334 developments, holding 2,602 buildings, many of them in disrepair, hundreds of thousands of residents across NYCHA properties could benefit from improved conditions and better designs, as Bronxchester residents have.

Read part two of this series: With Federal Help, A Big Project Reset Shows the Way at NYCHA

Nicholas Dagen Bloom is an associate professor at the New York Institute of Technology and author of "Public Housing That Worked." Karen Kubey is an Architectural and Housing Consultant at

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At NYCHA, A Small Project-High Concept Reset Wed, 27 Sep 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Nonprofit Linked To NYCHA Creates Crowdfunding Portal For Sustainability Projects c v8skqvyaacyk1.jpg large

Rasmia Kirmani-Frye (photo:@Fund4PH)

The Fund for Public Housing, a nonprofit established last year to supplement the New York City Housing Authority’s finances and services, launched an online platform this week in conjunction with ioby, a crowdfunding website, to enable NYCHA residents and community-based organizations to source funds for local sustainability initiatives like rooftop gardens and water conservation.

The online portal, called Ideas Marketplace, acts not only as crowdfunding tool, but as a means to connect community organizations and “generate excitement” for local projects across the five boroughs, explained Rasmia Kirmani-Frye, the founding president of the Fund for Public Housing, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “This is the first time in NYCHA’s history that we’ve launched something like this,” she said.

The new platform reflects an overarching goal of the Fund for Public Housing to cut through bureaucratic red tape and speedily implement programs for the more than 400,000 residents living in NYCHA developments. It is a “bread and butter” example of the Fund’s role as “an innovation escape hatch,” or laboratory for potential NYCHA programs, Kirmani-Frye said.

Rumblings about the creation of Ideas Marketplace began last April after the addition of a sustainability agenda to NextGen NYCHA, the city’s comprehensive 10-year plan to fortify public housing. The agenda called for the establishment of a website that “would provide resident- and community-led programs a platform to raise individual donations, seek volunteers, and find like-minded partners in other NYCHA communities to jointly raise philanthropic support.”

NYCHA soon began conversations with ioby, a nonprofit, crowdfunding website that supports neighborhood sustainability initiatives. The oldest and largest platform of its kind, ioby had previously partnered with other municipal agencies on similar ventures, including a campaign with the New York City Department of Transportation to transform space near the elevated railway along Livonia Avenue in Brownsville.

Praising ioby’s nonprofit work and specialization in community-based fundraising, Kirmani-Frye said it “is the perfect, both tech platform and crowdsourcing partner, because they get it and are authentic and genuine.”

ioby expressed mutual appreciation. “We’ve been looking to partner with NYCHA for years, so it’s good it got off the ground,” said Katie Lorah, ioby’s director of Communications, in a brief phone interview. She went on to explain that ioby will personally help with NYCHA projects, whether that includes “one-on-one budgeting” or providing participants a “network of people to talk to.”

Following their partnership with ioby, NYCHA approached community partners and organizations to gauge their interest and solicit proposals for local, community-sourced projects. “I went door to door… and met with over 20 organizations, where now we have over 10 or 11 organizations that are proposing projects,” said Vlada Kenniff, director of sustainability programs at NYCHA. “We were really hands on with approaching CBOs [community-based organizations] and residents.”

The collective efforts of NYCHA, the Fund, and ioby paid off when Ideas Marketplace went live this week. Although the website has yet to become the vibrant showcase of community-based projects as envisioned, it has already attracted attention. Rockaway Youth Task Force, a youth advocacy group, was the first to launch a project, raising over $9,000 so far for community gardens in Far Rockaway.

In partnership with the Fund and NYCHA, ioby also recently hosted a workshop to introduce the platform to community-based organizations from across the city. The the nascent crowdfunding platform was “well-received,” according to Erycka de Jesus, a NYCHA resident and outreach coordinator for NYC Compost Project, who attended the presentation. “In public housing, we don’t want to lose momentum to green up and to help promote a greener, more sustainable way of thinking,” she said.

While the launch of Ideas Marketplace meets a small target of NextGen NYCHA’s sustainability agenda, Kirmani-Frye does not see the crowdfunding platform’s efforts limited to sustainability initiatives. “You gotta start somewhere. This was written into the sustainability plan and that’s a publicly released document that the Authority is then accountable to,” she said. “But if this is a model and a process that is successful, there is no reason to keep it limited to sustainability.”

Kennif agreed. “I think the vision could become something greater,” she said.

by Ben Weiss, Gotham Gazette

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Nonprofit Linked To NYCHA Creates Crowdfunding Portal For Sustainability Projects Thu, 21 Sep 2017 21:31:56 +0000
Nonprofit Supporting NYCHA Adds to Early Fundraising & Programs NYCHA Fund for Public Housing

Rasmia Krimani-Frye, center, at the farm at Bayview Houses

More than a year-and-a-half after the Fund for Public Housing officially began soliciting donors, the nonprofit has raised approximately $1.5 million, according to New York City Housing Authority Chair and CEO Shola Olatoye.

Appearing recently on the “What’s the [Data] Point?” podcast with Gotham Gazette and Citizens Budget commission, Olatoye explained that the 501(c)3, established to support NYCHA operations and community programming, is showing encouraging growth.

In a subsequent interview with Gotham Gazette, Rasmia Kirmani-Frye, the founding president of the Fund for Public Housing, said the nonprofit has begun to establish “a body of work” that now includes partnerships with tech startups, plans for the construction of new playgrounds, efforts to create a “leadership academy” for residents, and more.

Launched in the model of public-private partnerships that supplement city services, like the Fund for Public Health and the Fund for Public Education, the Fund for Public Housing seeks philanthropic donations targeted to benefit NYCHA residents and acts as a fast track for potential NYCHA programs. “It is really hard sometimes in government to try new things and iterate quickly,” Kirmani-Frye explained.

While NYCHA has recently corrected operating deficits, showing one sign of better fiscal footing, and has a comprehensive -- and somewhat controversial -- plan in place, Next Generation NYCHA, the country’s largest public housing system is facing a $17 billion capital budget gap and anticipates future cuts in federal funding.

Because the authority’s massive infrastructure need is, as Olatoye says, “a public sector and private sector capital intensive assignment,” the Fund exists to complement the larger NextGen NYCHA plan through community development, resources for public housing residents, improvements to quality of life and access to opportunity. These are causes donors and organizations are more inclined to give towards than the mold removal, new roofs, and boiler replacements that make up large chunks of the authority’s capital need.

Accepting its first donations in January 2016, the Fund had amassed $900,000 as of last October. It managed a number of small projects, which included growing the Virtual Vita initiative, a free tax preparation program for low-income New Yorkers, as well as updating design guidelines for NYCHA buildings (Citi Community Development and Deutsche Bank contributed funding to these two projects, respectively).

Almost a year later, the Fund’s current war chest of $1.5 million is a few drops in the bucket towards its initial goal of $200 million. However, Kirmani-Frye explained that the goal “really was just a number that we came up with to get people’s attention. Honestly, this is what it would take to transform and invest in public housing in a different way. Then, we quickly moved to what we could do in a year…It was a big flag.”

Emphasizing that her organization is still a “baby,” Kirmani-Frye added that she and her partners have spent their first year trying to “get an audience.” In addition to highlighting its coverage in The New York Times, she pointed to their recent selection as one of Fast Company’s top 10 most innovative non-profits of 2017.

The Fund has also held a number of fundraising events, including a “salon dinner” hosted by board member Liz Neumark, founder and CEO of a New York City-based catering and creative events company, as well as a happy hour hosted by the Fund’s 30-person advisory board.

Most notably, the Fund is leveraging NYCHA “alumni” as donors and spokespeople. These are people “that have grown up in public housing who have gone to do both extraordinary and ordinary things,” Olatoye explained. While former residents Lloyd C. Blankfein, Jay-Z, and Howard Schultz have yet to contribute to the nonprofit, recent successes include actress and comedian Whoopi Goldberg and the current New York City Department of Health Commissioner, Dr. Mary Travis Bassett.

Other than raising public awareness for the necessity of public housing, the Fund has added new projects to its portfolio that, Olatoye says, sustain its focus on improving residents’ “well-being through the investment in people, place, and work.”

In June of this year, it hosted a tech panel in conjunction with MetaProp and Urban Tech Hub. With approximately 80 people in attendance, 10 startups came to pitch ideas to improve NYCHA’s buildings and the lives of its residents. Companies like Radiator Labs and ThinkEco proposed solutions to minimize the cost of heating and cooling in NYCHA buildings. Others like hOM suggested on-demand amenities, including fitness classes and monthly social events. Kirmani-Frye did not specify, but said seven of the 10 were “selected to pilot their product/idea at NYCHA.”

The Fund has also partnered with KaBOOM!, a nonprofit that constructs eco-friendly playgrounds, to secure funding for the creation of one in both 2017 and 2018. As of August 11th, Olatoye said they had raised $75,000 for the future “play spaces” and wanted to raise another $75,000 by the end of that week.

In addition to improving physical space offerings on NYCHA properties, a pending program supported by current City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito in partnership with the City University of New York aims to form a “leadership academy” that offers NYCHA residents a suite of free, for-credit classes on topics like community organizing and public policy. Another, inspired by NYCHA’s Food Pathways program, is led by aforementioned board member Liz Neumark. This “food working group” aims to help residents find jobs not only as entrepreneurs, but as members more broadly in the food, beverage, and hospitality industry. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these jobs will soon outnumber those in manufacturing.

Kirmani-Frye said the “crux of all this work is developing relationships” and that “people and investors and companies and whoever are welcome to come and talk about how they to want invest and contribute to public housing.”

Olatoye said similarly and noted that the Fund for Public Housing is hoping to find a game-changing donor soon. “We absolutely are seeking some additional, significant—I like to say—earth-moving investments,” Olatoye said on the podcast. “We have some good leads out there.”

by Ben Weiss, Gotham Gazette

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Nonprofit Supporting NYCHA Adds to Early Fundraising & Programs Mon, 28 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Under Trump, A Potential Silver Lining for NYCHA nycha aerial

NYCHA and the city (photo: @ZodetN)

Since the January inauguration of Donald Trump as president, department heads and administrators throughout New York City government have been bracing for negative reverberations, with many expecting slashed federal spending and harmful policy rollbacks.

At least one city agency sees a potential silver lining. Shola Olatoye, the chair and CEO of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) – the authority tasked with running public housing serving about 400,000 city residents – has sent a letter to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) with a list of regulations that the agency finds unnecessarily cumbersome or counterproductive.

The letter, dated June 14 of this year, was sent in response to a request for public comment by sent out by HUD as part of its efforts to comply with Executive Order 13777, “Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs” – Trump’s seventh, signed on January 30 – which is probably best known for requiring that for every new regulation issued by a federal agency, two others must be identified for repeal. The order also requires that, in most cases, agencies cannot issue regulations estimated to increase costs without offsetting that cost with other regulatory savings.

Olatoye mentioned that NYCHA was seeking federal regulatory rollbacks when asked about any potential positives for the authority under the Trump administration during an episode of the “What’s the [Data] Point?” podcast from Gotham Gazette and Citizens Budget Commission. “I strongly believe the federal government has an obligation—legal obligation—to continue to fund it, support it, and invest in it. Full stop,” Olatoye said of public housing.

“Can we use the, shall we say, bias of this administration towards the private sector, towards deregulation to help us? Absolutely, and we should. We have a three-page list of regulations that would allow us to move faster in the development process,” she added.

The letter, addressed to HUD’s Office of General Counsel, states that NYCHA “believes that many of HUD’s regulations are essential for the federal government to provide safe, quality housing for low-income households,” but adds that “NYCHA believes that through regulatory modifications HUD can increase the effectiveness of [public housing authorities’] core functions.”

The rationale is largely that red tape emanating from D.C. needlessly imposes onerous controls that raise costs and slows down NYCHA’s daily operations. For several specific regulations that NYCHA identifies, it states that required processes are either unnecessary or “less effective than local determinations.”

The recommendations to HUD encompass three broad categories: to “align with private housing industry practices to increase efficiency and further public-private partnerships”; to “utilize state and local data and knowledge to ensure HUD is responsive to market changes and to increase accuracy of HUD expenditures”; and to “reduce duplicative requirements, simplify approval processes, and increase flexibility to increase [public housing authority] efficiency, shift decision-making to the local level, and reduce HUD’s monitoring.”

Each of these is further broken down into particular areas, with lists and brief descriptions of specific active or forthcoming regulations that the agency wants reconsidered.

For example, a subsection under the state and local data subheading asks HUD to modify 24 CFR § 888.113 (e) – a reference to Title 24 of the Code of Federal Regulations, which delineates HUD regulations. That section deals with allowable data sources to determine what constitutes a fair market rent in an area; NYCHA would like HUD to allow the evaluation to take into account data compiled locally by public housing authorities (PHA) to more accurately gauge market conditions. Current standards call for the usage of the American Community Survey and local survey data collected through mail and phone surveys.

Many of the changes proposed by NYCHA would address grievances largely particular to a housing authority of its size and operational complexity (it is the largest PHA in North America, operating over 176,000 apartments in addition to managing the city’s Section 8 rental assistance voucher program). Like the market rent request, several would seek to transfer functions and processes to local control and move certain costs more in line with local standards.

In all there are just over 20 different regulatory stipulations and notices that NYCHA is requesting be modified. A review of the public database of comments submitted to HUD in relation to assessing regulations shows that the federal agency has received documentation from multiple public housing authorities, including the Philadelphia Housing Authority, San Diego Housing Commission, and the Illinois Housing Development Authority, among multiple others. NYCHA’s submission appears to be one of the longest, at 12 pages.

Brian Sullivan, a spokesperson for HUD, said the agency could not comment on whether any particular regulations have yet been identified as priorities for reexamination but that it was currently in the process of going through public comments and determining how to proceed.

A recent New York magazine article reported that the department under recently appointed HUD Secretary Ben Carson has shown itself willing to tear down much of its administrative apparatus. The department’s Region II, which includes New York and New Jersey, also has a new administrator, Lynne Patton – a longtime confidant of the Trump family and event planner with the Trump organization – though it is not clear what role she would play in the regulatory review.

See the full letter below:

by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette

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Under Trump, A Potential Silver Lining for NYCHA Thu, 24 Aug 2017 02:36:23 +0000
What's The [DATA] Point? $17 Billion whats the data point

What's The Data Point? Episode 8 -- $17 Billion, [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

For this episode of the podcast, we were joined by Shola Olatoye, chair and CEO of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the country's largest public housing authority, with over 400,000 people residing in its thousands of units across the city. Olatoye took over at NYCHA in 2014, soon after Mayor de Blasio took office and appointed her to the position, facing massive challenges, including about $17 billion in needed capital repairs to NYCHA properties and operating budget deficits. Olatoye explained her approach to leading NYCHA and a variety of specific initiatives and issues.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax), Maria Doulis (@MariaDoulis) of CBC (@cbcny), and special guest Shola Olatoye (@SholaOlatoye & @NYCHA).

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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What's The [DATA] Point? $17 Billion Thu, 10 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Part of ThriveNYC, NYCHA Trains Staff in Mental Health First Aid 5716575756 06b18d2c43 z

NYCHA community gathering at Queensbridge (Pete Mikoleski/NYCHA flickr) 

At a recent training session, just over 35 New York City Housing Authority staff members assembled at the authority’s downtown offices last Thursday. The course, which included eight topics, was part of the city’s ThriveNYC mental health care plan, one piece of which is 2,000 NYCHA employees receiving mental health care training so that they can more carefully and helpfully interact with public housing residents who may be experiencing mental health challenges.

The eight session subjects included first aid, substance abuse, suicide, and eating disorders. Participants told personal stories of dealing with mental illness, discussed circumstances they had encountered in the past in serving NYCHA residents, and asked questions about how best to approach hypothetical scenarios they suspected may occur.

When suffering from mental illness, “people often turn to people they know or agencies they trust, or people they see in their communities,” said Dr. Gary Belkin, executive deputy commissioner of mental hygiene for the city, who visited the training. Belkin explained that mental illness and mental health challenges are more prevalent among NYCHA’s residents, who number around 500,000, than the population at large.

ThriveNYC was launched by New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray, who was motivated by seeing many around her benefit from receiving aid for mental health ailments. “I heard many stories of triumph that reminded me of a fundamental truth: Mental illness is treatable. When people have access to the resources they need, they can live their lives to the fullest,” McCray wrote in a roadmap for ThriveNYC. The $850 million program aims to make mental health care more available and changing norms around the general issue to make receiving care more appealing to New Yorkers, many of whom are unaware of their options or are unwilling to seek assistance.

According to a 2015 report from the city Department of Health, one in five New Yorkers suffers from mental illness, including challenges ranging from acute depression to schizophrenia. Forty-one percent of those with mental illness said they did not receive or were delayed in getting treatment in the past year, according to the ThriveNYC website. One major ThriveNYC goal is training 250,00 New Yorkers in mental health first aid, thus working to combat the larger problem by making New York City communities more aware of both the signs that an individual may be in need of assistance and the resources available to those with mental health challenges.

On the side of the room in which the NYCHA training session was held last week stood signs with contact information for mental health hotlines both nationally and in New York City, for use in connecting residents to care providers.

NYCHA is a particularly important organization in the city’s battle against mental illness, Dr. Belkin told the staff members gathered for the training. Just before the lunch break, he spoke to trainees about how their close relationships with New Yorkers are essential to providing help to those suffering with mental health issues.

Dr. Belkin said that NYCHA workers, who forge bonds and establish trust with NYCHA residents, are well-positioned to assist in achieving key ThriveNYC goals. NCYHA employees have a “kind of a familiarity and a closeness” with low-income New Yorkers that others, such as doctors and nurses, don’t, Belkin said in an interview with Gotham Gazette following his remarks to the NYCHA staff. “It’s a real opportunity to be credible to the people we’re trying to reach,” he said. “It seems like a natural fit.”

NYCHA residents are a particularly important cohort to reach, too, Dr. Belkin explained. “It's not just the proximity and credibility with residents that NYCHA has but also this is a group of New Yorkers we need to reach,” he said. “People residing in NYCHA housing or rental assisted housing, or either, are two to three times more likely to have what we call ‘serious psychological distress,’” said Dr. Belkin, referencing an umbrella term used in health department community surveys that includes a range of illnesses. NYCHA tenants are a “population we need to make sure is connected and feels like they have a point of entry to mental health that's more familiar and not as stigmatized,” Belkin said.

Marina Oteiza, Borough Administrator for Family Partnerships in Manhattan at NYCHA, echoed Dr. Belkin’s optimism in regards to non-medical professionals ability to help people on this front. “A lot of lay people can do this,” she said of efforts to identify mental illness and direct those in need of assistance to the right place. “You don't necessarily need a social worker,” she said of NYCHA employees making connections to services for residents. “If you’re meeting with them, you're comfortable talking to them, you have a rapport with them. You can facilitate that a lot quicker than a social worker,” she said. “It does not need to be with a trained mental health professional,” she continued. “It can be with someone who cares and has an empathetic ear.” Good bedside manner, coupled with formal training would create an effective force towards the goal of improving NYCHA residents’ health and safety with regard to widespread mental health issues, she argued.

During the session, the instructor placed strong emphasis on destigmatizing mental illness, and making sure employees adopted a sympathetic, non-judgmental posture towards those with acute and chronic mental health issues. These ailments are medically treatable conditions and should be seen as such. The session leaders emphasized that mental health issues come about from no fault of the victim’s and did not result from an individual’s actions or character nor from weakness. Nobody should be ashamed or embarrassed for requesting medical attention, they stressed.

Helen Reinstein, certified mental health instructor and senior management trainer with the Learning and Development Unit of Human Resources at NYCHA, was in attendance at Thursday’s training in NYCHA offices at 250 Broadway. “You wouldn't hesitate to talk to someone with a broken arm about getting their arm set and getting the follow up care they need,” Reinstein said of the need to normalize mental health care. “We want people to feel the same way about mental health issues.”

Trainees were introduced to frameworks for types of circumstances they may have to handle in the field and were provided with scripted lines to use should these situations arise. The NYCHA staffers -- employees who help run and maintain NYCHA buildings, properties, and programs -- were also instructed on warning signs of mental illness and techniques to reach people that do not make a concerted effort to alert others of their struggles. Look at “body language,” said Tajhma Carroll, assistant director of Brooklyn Leased Housing, a NYCHA division. She then listed a few frequent indicators they were informed often suggest someone may be in need of treatment. “Sweats, they mentioned, hands or legs shaking. Those are telltale signs,” she said. “It's not only in what they say,” Carroll added.

People “isolated and alone in their house” or who engage in hoarding, wherein individuals store an excessive amount of things in their homes, leading to cramped, unhygienic living environments, are also causes for concern, Oteiza said. “If they’re not letting you into the apartment, that’s going to be a red flag for us,” she said.

If signs aren’t identified and those suffering from mental health problems are unaware of options available to them or unwilling to access medical attention, people may turn to other means to relieve their pain, Reinstein noticed. “A lot of times, people are using illegal substance in order to try to get to a place of feeling normal and using it as self-medication rather than seeking the care and intervention they really need,” she said.

As part of their education, NYCHA workers were instructed to ask some of the toughest questions when evidence warrants them, such as “have you ever considered suicide?” and “do you have a plan to kill yourself?” Those involved acknowledged how hard it can be to ask those questions or to inform someone their condition can only be properly alleviated by receiving a medical evaluation. During the training sessions, NYCHA staff constantly grappled with the challenge of ensuring people are getting the assistance they need, while also lending them enough personal space. “I do think there is a natural reticence to be intrusive, which is a good thing,” said Sherman.

Most trainees appeared to buy into the strategy of being active and quick to inquire if they detect signals that something may be amiss for a NYCHA resident. “So far people have been very receptive,” Reinstein said. “We’re excited about this training,” said Sherman. “I think that we’re really creating a culture where our staff really has the confidence to be able to interact with people, to de-escalate where it’s appropriate, to connect people with resources.”

Part of ThriveNYC, NYCHA Trains Staff in Mental Health First Aid Wed, 05 Jul 2017 04:00:00 +0000