NYCHA’s Transformation and Privatization is Underway; Anxious UWS Residents Fill Meeting Rooms

Barry Schwartz speaks to residents at the Douglass Houses.

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.

Schwartz walking outside the buildings.

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.

Representatives speak with residents of the Wise Towers.

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.”

Semer continued.

“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.

NEWS, REAL ESTATE | 15 comments | permalink
    1. Richard Nechamkin says:

      DeBla-bla-blasio has sold his soul to the devil (Ben Carson). Can’t wait to get him out of office. Worst mayor since Dinkins.

    2. concerned citizen says:

      wow – transparently a bad deal

    3. Sandra garcia says:

      Come and look at castel hill project
      No one at the bronx …

    4. lcnyc says:

      The website doesn’t seem to work, yet. I hope this guy and his office make a difference. Garbage and rats are out of control around the Douglass Houses.

    5. May says:

      Please start with All…SENIOR! housing they deserve!!! Sooo much BETTER! then they have been getting in the senior NYCHA development s…. Thank You Daughter if a Mother That Lives in HOPE GARDENS in Bushwick Brooklyn N.Y…..Thank You.

    6. Frank Lanzot says:

      Maintenance workers with yrs of experience should be hired by Mr. Shwartz to oversee that these renovations be done properly. With our years of experience we should be trusted to know what will work in most developments throughout the city. Having outside inspectors with no knowledge of what is actually needed for our residents can be a major failure. I hope Mr. Swartz gets to see this comment and think like me that in house maintenance workers with knowledge of what is truly needed can be an accet to this new program.

    7. Reese says:

      Hope this is really going to happen living in NYC housing wasn’t so bad bad in the days.. it’s not just poor managing it’s also the people on the property don’t care on so many levels.(garbage,pee,hanging out in the lobby or in front of the building. So if the property gets clean up inside and out the people just might care where they live.

    8. Simone says:

      God help us all.what will happen to the families that went into shelters do to mold lead etc.what happens to the families thats there now inhaling sickness still.what happens with the families when the removal process being.families can’t stay there they will become more sickening🤒.what happens to the government agencies that known these problems 20yrs or more.the families that died from this on going issues thats taken far to long to dismiss.😭 god bless us all.

    9. Evelyn says:

      Great news hope all is true.

    10. R.L. says:

      DONT BELIEVE THEM, THE MONEY AND WORTH OF THE PROPERTY IS TOO GOOD FOR THEM TO STOCK TO THEIR PROMISES. The only thing that will count is the bottom line and you can guarantee tenants will be thrown out. They privatized an agency people I know work for, and the only thing that counted was INCREASING SHAREHOLDER VALUE. So they dismissed cases marking them as successes, so they could produce statistics to increase investment, fired good people to hire cheaper, less qualified personnel, on and on. WHERE CARE OR HOUSING OR HUMAN SERVICES ARE CONCERNED,PRIVITIZATION IS THE WORST THING. See you in three years when most tenants are out and in five when they’re making your building into condos and all are out. FIGHT IT TOOTH AND NAIL OR YOU’LL FIND YOURSELF LIVING IN NJ

    11. Carlin Meyer says:

      I wonder if Schwartz has taken a look at the way in which housing is managed in places like Denmark, where self-management and cooperative and mutual responsibility and power/control are emphasized and facilitated/supported by government? Granted, the scale and ethos is different, but our methods haven’t been working and it can’t hurt to take a look at more “radical” solutions.

      • Bruce E. Bernstein says:

        excellent point, @Carlin. Our reaction is usually to privatize or rip down. Public housing is crucial to NYC, and in fact throughout the country, as more and more areas face an affordable housing crisis. Right wing privatization doesn’t work. Why not look at more radical solutions?

    12. Bob Matzel says:

      Ever seen the NYCHA block on Columbus avenue north of 100th? It’s a huge building complex designed to keep the poor classes out of site and out of mind. It jams their votes into one tiny area. Those buildings are surrounded by huge grass spaces that are full of rat holes. Building them was a mistake. The city should just give them vouchers, move them out, tear it down, and build real apartment houses on the site. Set aside half of them for the low-income lottery. It’ll teach tomorrow’s kids a thing or two about diversity.