CM Torres and the call for a state NYCHA monitor (photo: @RitchieTorres)
As Mayor Bill de Blasio and leaders of the embattled New York City Housing Authority continue to respond to fallout from revelations that NYCHA had failed for years to comply with federal and local laws around lead paint inspections, some elected officials are renewing calls for the state take a more active role in the city’s massive public housing system.
NYCHA, which has for decades has been plagued by lapses in safety protocols, sometimes with tragic results, includes 175,000 housing units home to well over the official tally of 400,000 New Yorkers. A report by the city’s Department of Investigation (DOI), released earlier this month, indicates that NYCHA Chair and CEO Shola Olatoye knew of deficiencies in lead inspections in early 2016 but signed off on paperwork submitted to the federal government certifying that all the regulations had been met. Olatoye explained that soon after she had become aware of the gap, which began under the prior administration, she alerted NYCHA’s federal regulators and jumpstarted the lead inspections.
DOI called for the appointment of a “third-party monitor” to ensure compliance with lead and safety rules as well as to perform regular safety checks on NYCHA units.
De Blasio and Olatoye have resisted both the calls for more state oversight and the recommendation for the outside monitor, instead implementing their own set of reforms, including new protocols and a new internal compliance unit, while multiple top NYCHA officials were either forced out or demoted. Though he also sat on the revelations for over a year, de Blasio argued that NYCHA was already addressing the lead inspection shortfalls and admitted that he should have made the issue public sooner. He has strongly pushed back against calls for Olatoye’s removal.
As a public authority, the 84-year-old agency -- the oldest and largest such low- and middle-income housing provider in the country -- is technically under the purview of the state, though state law grants the mayor control over appointment of board members and leadership.
But in the wake of the lead-inspection revelations, several lawmakers want an increased state role in NYCHA oversight. Members of the state Senate Independent Democratic Conference, led by Senator Jeff Klein of the Bronx, held a November 20 press conference to push for a state monitor, as outlined in legislation introduced by Klein earlier this year, which would create an Office of the Independent Monitor within the Department of Homes and Community Renewal, to be appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the Senate. Klein and other members of the IDC were also joined by City Council Member Ritchie Torres, chair of the Council’s public housing committee, and other elected officials.
The state played a larger role in financing and governing the agency in the years immediately after World War II, when there was a large state-wide public housing program, but that contribution shrunk over time to near non-existence, and NYCHA relies almost entirely on the federal housing agency, HUD (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development), for subsidizing its operating and capital needs.
While NYCHA has accumulated the $17 billion in capital needs to get into a state of good repair, the authority has also struggled to remain in the black in its yearly operating budget, which has actually been stabilized under de Blasio and Olatoye, even without state money.
State-provided operating subsidies to NYCHA were ended by Governor George Pataki in 1998, leaving the housing agency with a $60 million annual operating shortfall, according to NYCHA records. To address its growing annual operating deficit, which was as high as $235 million in 2006, NYCHA transferred many federal subsidies meant for capital improvements into operations, which ensured the system would fall into further disrepair. Since 2006, NYCHA’s personnel has been reduced from 15,000 to 11,000, with many of the jobs lost white collar positions that played a role in compliance. New York City followed the State’s example and by 2004 it had essentially stopped subsidizing NYCHA operations, further crippling the agency, according to according to urban historian and professor Dr. Nicholas Dagen Bloom, co-editor of the anthology Affordable Housing in New York.
“In the past 20 years, there’s a been a federal reduction, but compared to the state and city, HUD is really the only game in town,” said Bloom. “The city and state are almost entirely dependent on HUD for the real or long term oversight. So, there’s kind of a bureaucratic insanity where there is less money, but [NYCHA] is supposed to maintain the same standards.”
NYCHA has been stabilized somewhat under de Blasio, with the 2015 release of NextGeneration NYCHA, an ambitious, 10-year strategic plan to get the authority back on track. Thanks to an increase in city investment, the operating budget is no longer running a deficit and plans are moving ahead to bring in more revenue, but NYCHA has not made much headway in addressing the billions of dollars worth of unmet capital needs. As part of the plan, the de Blasio administration relieved NYCHA of more than $100 million in annual bills toward police services and property taxes. In 2015 and 2016, for the first time in years, the authority achieved an operating surplus, one just under HUD’s recommended three-month cushion. However, the most recent $35 million federal cut, announced in March, is expected to plummet NYCHA’s operating budget back into the red.
Over the past few years, NYCHA has benefited from some capital investment from the city address some infrastructural deficiencies. Since 2015 the city has infused the authority with $1.3 billion to fix 952 roofs, benefiting 175,478 NYCHA residents, as well as $555 million to repair 409 facades, according to a spokesperson for the de Blasio administration. Although the State has historically provided capital funds for NYCHA developments, in 2001, state contributions were reduced from $15 million to $6.4 million a year and dwindled completely by 2007, with the exception of a few one-time investments like $100 million for NYCHA (managed by Dorm Authority for the State of New York) for playgrounds and security cameras in 2015, and $200 million for boilers and elevators in 2017, according to city records.
However, infrastructure problems and public health crises persist throughout NYCHA, and since 2015, the IDC and Council Member Torres have been calling for the state to take more fiscal and regulatory responsibility for the city’s public housing system, a recommendation Governor Andrew Cuomo has in the past shrugged off, incorrectly characterizing the housing authority a “federal agency” and wrongly declaring state contributions as “unprecedented.”
Senator Klein’s state monitor bill unanimously passed the Senate on the final day of the 2017 legislative session, but has not been considered by the Assembly. Spokespersons for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and the Assembly’s housing committee chair, Assemblymember Steven Cymbrowitz, did not respond to requests for comment on the bill.
Joining the calls for a state monitor amid the lead inspection fallout is not only Torres, but also Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who in a letter to Governor Cuomo, Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said the federal government has demonstrated itself to be an unreliable partner to the city.
“Only the state has the ability to appoint a credible monitor to examine NYCHA at this time,” Diaz Jr. said in a statement. “More than 400,000 New Yorkers call our city’s public housing developments their home. The families who call our city’s public housing developments home deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. It is now plainly clear that a state-appointed monitor is the only way to make that happen.”
In response to the latest calls for significantly more state involvement in NYCHA, Cuomo spokesperson Abbey Fashouer said in a statement, “We have continuously expressed concerns with NYCHA’s operational failures and these latest allegations -- and potential legal violations -- that the agency knowingly committed by exposing New Yorkers to lead paint are particularly disturbing. We have received the letter, and we are reviewing it with our fellow state partners, the Attorney General and the State Comptroller.”
De Blasio, at a press conference last week, appeared resistant to the idea of increased state involvement, emphasizing that the pertinent authority over the city’s public housing system is HUD and stressing that a federal investigation by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York already identified NYCHA’s lead screening lapses in 2016 and that the city was taking steps to remedy it.
“The pertinent authority here is the federal government,” said de Blasio at a press conference on November 20. “I think it’s important that agencies respect their fellow agencies. So, this is the top level of government that is the funder of a lot of NYCHA’s operations and has legal oversight responsibility. And for two years, they’ve been involved in this issue. I think that should be respected.”
While de Blasio acknowledged that the federal investigation into NYCHA is ongoing and that the city is continuing to cooperate, he said it could lead to a federal monitor of the housing authority, similar to those in place at the NYPD and Department of Correction. Instead of a state or independent monitor at this time, NYCHA is creating an Executive Compliance Department, with Chief Compliance Officer Edna Wells Handy at its head. Handy has been counsel to the NYPD commissioner. The mayor has also rebuffed calls from Public Advocate Tish James to fire Olatoye, defending his public housing chief, saying that she has been instrumental in turning the authority around.
“I’m convinced that the leadership we have now is part of the solution to the problems that plague NYCHA,” de Blasio said at the November 20 press conference. De Blasio also referenced the personnel changes beneath Olatoye, though those were only made once the lead inspection scandal had become public through the Department of Investigation, not soon after Olatoye and de Blasio first learned of the inspection lapses.
Critics say steps taken by the de Blasio administration are insufficient. "Calling these changes ‘sweeping’ hardly makes them so. An internal compliance department is no substitute for an independent monitor. NYCHA's failure to recognize the need for third-party accountability will only deepen the damage to its credibility," said Council Member Torres.
A spokesperson for the DOI, reiterated its call for the external NYCHA monitor to be housed at the independent city agency, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. The spokesperson noted that DOI already has a “robust integrity monitor program” with 18 active monitorships “overseeing an array of integrity issues that include construction, city-funded not for profits, and information technology.”
Professor Bloom said he is not surprised there is little enthusiasm from Cuomo’s office for the state to get involved.
“The underlying problem is NYCHA residents don’t vote at very high levels -- New York City residents don’t vote -- and upstate, public housing is not a priority. It’s a very small program upstate. [It’s a question of whether] there is the political will,” said Bloom.
According to Bloom, the calls for external monitors may be beside the point. While the creation of additional compliance entities may produce more reports (and bureaucracy), without a significant investment of funds to address the lead problem at its root cause, these steps are unlikely to improve quality of life for NYCHA residents. Currently federal regulations require that NYCHA inspect all 55,000 apartments with presumed lead paint, and NYCHA must prioritize apartments with children under six-years-old listed as residents. The city insists that the number of affected apartments is low; that between 2010 and 2016 there were only 17 documented cases requiring lead abatement at 18 NYCHA apartments where children with elevated blood lead levels live. Four of these cases occurring after 2014, according to de Blasio’s office, but a WNYC report suggests that these numbers may be skewed, since the city defines "elevated lead levels" at 10 micrograms per deciliter -- double the U.S Center for Disease Control standard since 2012.
“If you really want to make NYCHA lead-free -- and the case could be made that there should be no lead in any of these apartments -- well, that will require a much more extensive cleaning that will cost a lot of money,” Bloom said. A state-run and financed “lead abatement program” for NYCHA, for example, would likely be welcomed by the housing authority, Bloom added.
Meanwhile, Mayor de Blasio said that two rounds of inspections and amelioration were already underway has vowed that NYCHA would soon been in compliance. On Monday, The Daily News reported that NYCHA residents had been notified that inspectors would force entry into units, removing and replacing door locks if tenants were not home during a designated time window.
“We will be in compliance with Local Law One next month and then we intend to stay in compliance with Local Law One every year thereafter,” de Blasio said at the November 20 press conference. “And that is important because what that means essentially is as soon as inspections and amelioration ends for one year, you start essentially immediately thereafter for the next year. So there will be a continuous inspection cycle from this point on. Any resources that NYCHA needs for that effort will be provided.”