By Michael McDowell
Seismic change has begun in earnest for the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who call New York City Housing Authority home, following the appointment of independent federal monitor Bart Schwartz to oversee the ongoing reform of the troubled agency.
The appointment of Schwartz is the result of an agreement, which was announced earlier this year, between Mayor Bill de Blasio, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, and the Southern District of New York.
In a recent resident meeting at the Frederick Douglass Houses on the Upper West Side, Schwartz made his case to Douglass residents in person—in his first such visit to a NYCHA development, citywide—and emphasized his independence and experience.
“I’m a lawyer, and although I haven’t practiced law in a long time, I used to be a federal prosecutor. A number of years ago, I got into the private sector and decided to specialize in monitorships. I go into companies that are troubled, for one reason or another, and I work on changing the culture—for the last three years, I’ve been the safety monitor for General Motors [where] I was brought in by the federal government to oversee changes related to safety.”
A soft-spoken man with an amiable demeanor, one can imagine Schwartz has been successful negotiating complex and consequential issues between stakeholders with varying priorities. But why is he qualified to oversee a turnaround at NYCHA?
“I can tell you, [when I went to General Motors], I didn’t know how to build cars, but General Motors cars are safer now than when I got there…There’s a value in having people who are new to an industry, because they’re going to ask very fundamental and basic questions, they’re not going to make the same assumptions that everybody makes. We don’t believe that NYCHA is too big to succeed.”
Schwartz directed residents to a new website for his office, and outlined a number of specific priorities.
“When you look at the agreement, you’ll see that it is primarily related to heat, hot water, elevators, lead, mold, garbage, and vermin…[but] the fact is that the agreement is broader than that, and I’ll have to take a look at the entire structure of NYCHA and whether it is built to do the job.”
In addition, Schwartz said he will take a close look at how money is being spent at NYCHA—especially when it comes to vendors and contractors—investigate alleged flaws in the work-order system Maixmo, and assemble a community advisory council, composed of residents and others. Schwartz will also file public reports.
Roosevelt, a Douglass resident since 1959, remained skeptical. Does Schwartz have any ability to increase NYCHA’s budget? Is Trump going to continue to push for cuts in HUD’s budget, which in turn will result in cuts to NYCHA’s budget?
“I can tell you that I have already had discussions with the governor’s office, and I expect that very soon the $450 million dollars that the state controls will be released to NYCHA…and I will be involved in making sure that that money is being properly spent and used for the purposes that it is intended.”
Carmen Quinones, who hosted the meeting at Douglass, jumped in.
“Now as far as Trump, let me tell you something: I went to see him, and if he doesn’t give us the money, I’m going after him too,” she said.
Quinones, president of the tenants association at Douglass, recently visited the White House, where she met with President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
Quinones’ appearance in Washington underscores the increasing national visibility of failures at NYCHA, but the story continues to unfold on the Upper West Side. Schwartz’s dialogue with residents at Douglass was not the only recent meeting pertaining to changes at NYCHA held in the neighborhood.
At Goddard Riverside Community Center, NYCHA representatives discussed the imminent privatization of management at Wise Towers in the West 90s.
Previous informational meetings on these privatization programs, known as Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) and PACT (Permanent Affordability Commitment Together) conversions, have been closed to press.
In a lengthy presentation, Wise residents were shown slides featuring glossy photographs of renovated apartments, and promised that apartments like those pictured would soon be theirs. Complicated discussions of significant changes to management structure, including the movement of residents from public housing (Section 9) to voucher-based Section 8, as well as the responsibilities of private, for-profit management, were intermingled with repeated reassurances.
“PACT will not sell the land. We are leasing the land and we are leasing the buildings…[PACT] will not displace NYCHA families. You don’t have to move during the renovations, you are in your apartment and the hope is that you stay in your apartment with the upgrades, with the private management, and with the new social services. This program is not here to demolish and knock down your building,” said Leroy Williams, a NYCHA representative in charge of community development.
“You will receive a notice in the mail stating that your public housing lease will be terminated, and that you will need to sign a new Section 8 lease. This Section 8 lease will replace your current housing lease,” he added, later in the presentation.
The differences between a NYCHA Section 8 lease and a general Section 8 lease were not clarified. But so-called “choice mobility” was emphasized. Choice mobility refers to an option for tenants, after a set period of time, to request a Housing Choice Voucher (HCV), which enables them to seek a rental unit in the private market, in New York City and beyond.
Borough President Gale Brewer has previously raised concerns that the conversions in developments like Wise Towers lack sufficient tenant protections, and that NYCHA has not been transparent with residents when it comes to the important distinctions between RAD and PACT.
Many residents feel a fundamental question remains unanswered: what incentive do private, for-profit management companies have to enter into a long-term relationship—permanent affordability—with low-income public housing tenants?
Prior to a Q&A, Williams once again touted the renovations to come.
“This is not just cosmetic, this is not coming and putting paint on the wall, give you a refrigerator and I’m done, see you later. That’s not what this program is…[Renovations will include] new bathrooms, a kitchen with stainless steel appliances, new cabinetry—everything is done. This is cosmetic, but anything behind the walls will also be done,” he said.
Responses to a request for proposals (RFP) to do these renovations and assume management of developments closed on March 22, and development partner selection is scheduled to occur in May.
The RFP, in which units were bundled into a “Manhattan mega-bundle,” has been controversial.
Chair of Community Board 7 Roberta Semer, like Borough President Brewer, is concerned about process transparency, and particularly perturbed that established nonprofits, such as Goddard Riverside, were unable to participate in the bidding process, due to the size of the bundle.
“The city has grouped together 16 RADs, 16 developments that could be developed into RADs. Our concern is that this is so big, that it could [result in the selection of] a developer that might not be able to manage it, and we really think it’s very important for the local community, the residents in the buildings, as well as any nonprofit that may be renting space in the building, that these stakeholders be involved in the planning and the ongoing work.”
“We want residents to be involved in this, and we want transparency. We didn’t think this RFP was transparent,” she added. “NYCHA has not been transparent, and NYCHA has not been forthcoming about what’s happening.”
A NYCHA representative has not returned a request for comment.
In a Q&A at Goddard Riverside, some Wise residents were hopeful, others less so.
“I’m wheelchair-bound and I’m home-bound, and I have a pet—a cat—and I have medical conditions that I have to use a machine three times a day. I can’t be around dust. I can’t carry things with me to another apartment. I don’t want to be confined, to have strangers in my home…,” a man said, trembling.
“You won’t have to,” Williams assured him.