House of Canards: Jeffries, Looking to Washington, Calls for NYCHA Investigation—But Is the Problem the City Itself?

2012 08 12 11 26 19 House of Canards: Jeffries, Looking to Washington, Calls for NYCHA Investigation—But Is the Problem the City Itself?

Will you protect this house? (Matt Chaban)

Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries convened a press conference yesterday calling for a federal investigation of mismanagement of the New York City Housing Authority. Mr. Jeffries and about 50 of his constituents were lined up in front of the Farragut Houses, wedged between the BQE and the luxury lofts of DUMBO.

Throughout the half-hour event, while away from the podium, the would-be Congressman, dressed in a navy suit with subtle pinstripes and geometric red tie, would dip his hand into his pocket and withdraw a blue handkerchief that matched his shirt. He would duck his head and swiftly dab at his brow before returning the hankie, to do it all over again a few minutes later.

Assemblyman Jeffries looked as though he wanted to hide the fact that he, too, was human, and thus susceptible to the heat. But the thought that crossed our minds was imagine having to live in one of these brick-and-concrete monoliths on such an unbearable day. It turns out that is the unfortunate case year-round.

“They are suffering from rats, broken doors, mold, broken elevators, inadequate heat and criminal activity that is far too rampant,” Mr. Jeffries scolded, the crowd uh-huhing along. “These conditions are unsanitary, unsafe and unacceptable.”

On Friday, Mr. Jeffries sent a letter to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan—Mayor Bloomberg’s Housing Preservation and Development commissioner until President Obama spirited him back to Washington four years ago. The assemblyman wanted a full accounting of nearly $1 billion in federal funds that the city’s housing authority had failed to spend or misspent as public housing residents suffer through a maintenance backlog stretching for years. The Daily News revealed the problems on August 1 and has been hammering on the agency every day since, often with multiple articles and editorials per issue spanning a range of alleged infractions and misdeeds.

Whether the problems are as serious as the paper contends is a matter of debate—some housing watchers have said they are not, and that in fact the News is itself engaging in the sort of obfuscation the tab is accusing the city of. At the same time, these people say, the Housing Authority, which accommodates as many residents as the entire city of Atlanta, remains rife with problems, just not exactly the ones that are currently drawing headlines.

This is part of the reason Mr. Jeffries is calling for his investigation. “This mismanagement shocks the conscience and requires immediate federal intervention,” he said. “There are tens of thousands of hard-working, decent families who live in this community and throughout the city in public housing. Many of these families are subjected to conditions that are inhumane.”

He said that the housing authority was no better than “the boy who cried wolf” because for years the agency had pleaded poverty, only for it now to be revealed that it had hundreds of millions of dollars lying around unspent. (This is not necessarily an accurate assessment, since much of this was capital money, dedicated to large projects, rather than the maintenance accounts, which are effectively broke.)

Mr. Jeffries said he wanted three things from the federal investigation: “What happened, why did it happen and how do we prevent this type of massive financial mismanagement from ever happening again.” HUD had yet to respond to Friday’s letter, and representatives could not be reached on Sunday.