Is the media to blame for NYCHA’s problems? Or, more specifically, the Daily News? That was certainly the impression given by a handful of pols on the steps of City Hall this afternoon.
Led by Rosie Mendez, chair of the City Council’s housing committee, the group applauded the New York City Housing Authority’s recent improvements over the past months and years. While it was widely acknowledged that the state of public housing in the city was far from perfect, the situation was indeed improving in the view of those huddled under the portico of City Hall as it drizzled on the steps just beyond.
“NYCHA’s problems are profound,” Queens Councilman LeRoy Comrie said. “They cannot be explained away in a newspaper article that simply says they are not doing their job.”
The reps told stories of strategic plans embraced, security cameras installed, roofs repaired and rapid response teams deployed, and took great pains to explain the difference between maintenance and capital funds. The former fixes a leaky pipe or a broken stove gasket, the latter replaces an entire complex’s plumbing or appliances.
After screaming headlines about $1 billion of mismanaged funds (for capital projects), the News then ran stories for days decrying moldy apartments and rat infestations—travesties, but travesties none of that money could be spent on. “They cannot mix their capital and their expense, they cannot take their capital money that is meant for roofs and go and fix leaky faucets, because then the federal government would go and completely defund them,” Councilwoman Mendez said. “They have a way to do it, and they have to use the money in the way the federal government and HUD oversees them to do it.”
There was also criticism of the fact that the media had suggested NYCHA was sitting on the $1 billion, ignoring the fact that it was held up in the bureaucratic process of seeking approvals from numerous agencies both in New York and Washington. “More of this money has been spent than they are letting on,” Councilwoman Letitia James said, with the oft-cited amount being around 60 to 70 percent of the funds targeted by the News as having been allocated if not yet spent.
Another major factor was the money had been frozen for administrative reasons. Part of this is that NYCHA was engaged in a strategic revaluation after Chairman John Rhea took over in 2009. “NYCHA is 2,602 buildings,” Ms. Mendez said. “This is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and that’s why when they froze the money I wasn’t happy, but it’s because they realized this isn’t a one-size-fits all solution. You have buildings, you have developments that are one building, you have developments that are 40 buildings, you have developments that have six stories, and you have developments that are 25 stories. You have to analyze it; you have to figure out, if you’re gonna do it, how you’re gonna do it.”
The council was also partly to blame, in that many of its members had offered up their own funds to fix issues at various developments in their district. When the slush fund scandal hit in 2009, just as Chairman Rhea was coming on board, that held up many projects throughout all city programs, including those in the works at NYCHA. “That slowed down the pipeline,” Ms. Mendez said.
The politicians’ greatest frustration was not simply the misrepresentation of NYCHA. Their biggest concern was the impact it would have in Washington, where the agency draws more than 90 percent of its funding any given year. “The problem is in Washington, when they see we are one of the few places that did not get rid of our public housing like so many have, they do not see the political will to keep that intact into the future,” Upper West Side Councilwoman Gale Brewer said. “We know that the repairs are taking too long, that the kitchen will not be fixed until 2015, but when that is all they read about in Washington, they are not going to give us any more money.”
Indeed, a day after the News reported on an unreleased $10 million study of the agency, Republican Senator Charles Grassley attacked NYCHA in a letter to HUD (which was then reported in the News). The names Romney and Ryan were invoked repeatedly during the press conference, a portent of an even darker future.
“At a time when the housing prices are at a point where they are, our affordable housing stock is so important to maintain,” Queens State Senator Jose Peralta said. “It is at this time, this is the exact wrong conversation to have, to cut funding from the federal government.”
What seemed to bother the electeds more than anything was the indignity of it all—whatever their opinion of NYCHA, the conversation seemed to hurt the residents the most. “Like Councilwoman Mendez, I am the product of NYCHA, I came out of the South Jamaica Houses, and now I have the pleasure of representing them,” Queens Councilman Ruben Wills said.
“We don’t care about the free family days at NYCHA, we don’t care about the scholarships it gives out, these are the things we aren’t hearing about,” he continued. “A lot of the negative-type attacks without any corrective measures is nothing but counter-productive. You can’t just keep advertising, advertising, advertising the negative. People live in these houses. These aren’t just buildings. People live and work in these communities.”