The Frederick Douglass Houses. Photo by Scott Matthews.
By Michael McDowell
Big changes are on the horizon for New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) residents — many of whom live on the Upper West Side, in developments like Wise Towers in the West 90s, and the Frederick Douglass Houses between West 100th and 104th Streets. NYCHA plans to shift management of its complexes to private developers via the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) and Permanent Affordability Commitment Together (PACT) programs; as NYCHA’s plans come into focus, residents and elected officials feel serious questions remain unanswered.
RAD and PACT are U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) efforts to preserve public housing; in both programs, public housing tenants are converted to voucher-based Section 8 or Section 18 rental housing assistance programs.
The structure of the conversion process, which is extremely complex, offers the promise of access to capital for long overdue maintenance and repair, as well as financial relief for housing authorities.
RAD and PACT are set to impact as many as 62,000 units citywide, and the programs were the talk of a sparsely attended hearing at the Borough of Manhattan Community College on Wednesday, at which the NYCHA Board heard public comment.
Attendees, the majority of whom were NYCHA residents, expressed anger, fear, outrage, and frustration over their lack of inclusion in the planning process. Many residents believe the authorization of RAD and PACT are the first step toward their eventual removal.
Elected officials appear to share these concerns.
“NYCHA must codify language on tenant rights and permanent affordability into Section 18 projects’ legal documents, such as a regulatory agreement or a document tied to the property that does not have an expiration date,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, whose in-person testimony quieted the auditorium.
Following the expiration of a several decades-long contract, renewal and affordability are not guaranteed under Section 18.
Brewer emphasized the need for transparency and communication.
“NYCHA must do a better job communicating with its residents. Those who are going to be impacted by PACT—particularly if it’s under Section 18 with less protection—should not have to find out what’s going on from elected officials or advocates,” Brewer added. However, she is “cautiously supportive of RAD” due to the guaranteed affordability protections built into Section 8.
Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, who represents much of the Upper West Side, did not appear in person, but a representative read her statement.
“NYCHA, as a start, must create a fact sheet for residents that clearly outlines the conversation process…NYCHA residents have rights and are entitled to being engaged in a collaborative and transparent process that respects their rights as residents in their homes,” she said.
Aside from the many Upper West Siders who reside in NYCHA buildings, readers may be unaware that Goddard Riverside’s Bernie Wohl Center is housed within NYCHA. The center primarily provides after school programming for children, but also hosts art exhibitions and the occasional string quartet.
In her testimony, Brewer demanded established nonprofits have a seat at the table and the opportunity to participate in the bidding process for these projects.
“I want to be very clear, I, Gale Brewer, will not support any project that isn’t going to be done through a nonprofit community development corporation, period…I feel very, very strongly about this.”
According to Brewer’s testimony, NYCHA has stipulated that PACT bidders in Manhattan must have completed a project of at least $75 million and must manage at least 1,700 units of affordable housing. In Brooklyn, the requirement is $300 million and 2,600 units under management. Such steep requirements erect a significant barrier to any nonprofits, such as Goddard, who may have otherwise sought to participate.
“I urge NYCHA to revise its RFP [request for proposal] criteria by bidding out smaller, more neighborhood-based clusters and requiring for-profit applicants to partner with CDCs,” Brewer added.
A NYCHA spokeswoman said the agency has made a genuine effort to involve residents who live in developments slated for conversion via RAD or PACT in the planning process. Namely, residents have been included in what has been an “exceptionally open and communicative process,” she said. “Our staff goes door to door multiple times for every unit that is being converted. We are not surprising any residents with conversion.”
Additionally, “tenant rights are codified–all residents receive the same protections and guarantees, whether they are RAD, Section 18, or Unfunded conversions,” she added, and linked to NYCHA materials describing the RAD and PACT programs in greater detail.