Public housing residents showed up by the hundreds at a housing hearing last Tuesday to protest a new NYCHA initiative, which many believe will lead to pricing out low-income households from their homes.
As the hearing entered its third hour, city officials still had the floor, and security at the event had to regularly shush audience members who repeatedly shouted “Let us speak!”
To help combat a $2.5 billion operational deficit, the New York City Housing Authority launched NextGeneration NYCHA, or NextGen, a 10-year plan overhauling NYCHA’s funding and general operations. NYCHA unveiled NextGen last May but announced the biggest changes to the housing authority in mid-January. NextGen is meant to address lower operating costs of nearly $20 billion and bring in additional revenue. NextGen is expected to bring in between $300 and $600 million for the housing authority over the next decade, effectively fighting a fire with a squirt gun.
“[The deficit] requires us to seek innovative solutions, work with residents on some tough decisions, and leverage every available resource to create the safe, clean, and connected communities our residents deserve,” said Zodet Negron, the deputy press secretary for the Housing Authority,
The plan includes 15 strategies that aim to cut the $17 billion needed for repairs and maintenance by 25 percent, though no figures were included in the plan. Such strategies include moving work orders onto a mobile app, strengthening the rent collection process, and turning over NYCHA-owned land for private developers to construct mixed-income buildings, which is the main tenant of NextGen.
The last point is attracting the most heat from critics and worry among NYCHA residents and those who advocate for them.
“It’s about the shutting down of housing projects in this city which are a mainstay of many black and Latino New Yorkers who can’t afford to live in other housing,” said Lenora Fulani, an activist and co-founder of the All Star Project, which advocates towards empowering youth and the poor, who is leading the opposition. Fulani lived in public housing until the age of nine and worries how the plan will impact low-income residents.
“This happened in other major cities across the country — in St. Louis, Chicago — under the guise of ‘if we do this, it’ll cut down on crime,'” Fulani added. “This isn’t about crime. It’s about poor people having the capacity to go to good schools, have good jobs, and have a better life.”
Many residents who attended the hearing expressed their anger with the proposal to cut costs by bringing developers into the process.
“Opening the door to market rate housing is not the way,” said an unidentified woman, a NYCHA resident, who spoke at the hearing. “We don’t want the damn money. We say hell no.”
“If you want to help the homeless,” said another NYCHA resident at the hearing, “you don’t do it by making us homeless.” The resident, who would only identify herself as a Latina, emphasized the importance of low-income housing to minorities.
Specifically, the project involves private developers building new apartment complexes on NYCHA-owned land. The buildings’ units would be a 50/50 split between market value apartments and public housing.
“We’re not talking about people who will be priced out tomorrow,” said Douglas Balder, an architect who testified against NextGen NYCHA and who believes the mixed-income buildings will eventually force public housing residents from their neighborhoods. “People making more money can afford different things. This will price out existing merchants that cater to lower incomes and bring in more upscale businesses for people making $50,000.”
Balder also says that over time, public housing residents will not be able to afford the amenities — such as groceries — in their neighborhoods and will have to move out.
“Let’s go build livable neighborhood housing like NYCHA’s first houses with modern updates,” said Gerard Frohnhoefer, a social science professor at LaGuardia Community College. Frohnhoefer circulated a petition at the hearing with the goal of overhauling the public housing program to give homes to every homeless New York resident.
NYCHA receives most of its funding from the federal government, and since 2001, its funding has been cut by over $2 billion. NextGen was developed in an attempted to keep NYCHA operating.
“Hard problems never have easy solutions,” said Shola Olatoye, chair and CEO of NYCHA.
Olatoye has released five sites of upcoming NextGen projects but has not released information on an additional 40-80 projects, despite pressure from Ritchie Torres, the city councilman who chairs the committee that oversees NYCHA. On Monday, Torres wrote an open letter to Olatoye criticizing the lack of transparency and pressured her, without success, to release more details at Tuesday’s hearing.
Olatoye said she plans to release them in the second quarter of this year.
Opposition to the plan fell on deaf ears. While Olatoye said NYCHA is looking for resident input, she made it clear NextGen is moving forward.
“I’m not a politician,” she said. “I’m just a houser. I’m someone who runs the country’s largest housing authority and is trying to save it from the brink of financial ruin.”
Olatoye expressed pessimism about the New York or US departments of Housing and Urban Development coming to NYCHA’s financial rescue.
“There is no NYCHA fairy that’s coming,” she said. “So we have to come up with real, practical solutions to get our financial house in order so that we can preserve NYCHA for the next generation.”