The South Jamaica Houses is one of the 22 NYCHA
complexes in Queens.
BY TESS McRAE
As newspapers and television news harp on supposed tension between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, attention is being drawn away from some of the most vulnerable people in the city: Residents of the New York City Housing Authority.
The latest controversy swirling around the two leaders involves $100 million in state funds that de Blasio and NYCHA wanted to go toward roof repairs, but that Cuomo decided to divvy up among Assembly members. In essence: Each agree the money should be allocated to public housing, but disagree on the appropriate execution of that allocation.
“Residents feel every single day – through broken elevators, mold, poor transportation – how much work needs to be done,” said Councilman Donovan Richards (D-Laurelton), who represents 8,000 public housing residents in the Rockaways. “This is what we’re left to deal with and it’s a hard pill to swallow. We need to understand we can’t continue to put a Band-Aid on what has plagued the public housing system in New York City.”
According to the governor’s office, Assembly members were asked to submit proposals for their district, laying out which complexes would receive the funds and what they would be used for.
Cuomo’s unexpected decision to allocate funding for public housing through the Assembly has been overwhelmingly criticized by city and state leaders, including Mayor de Blasio, himself. Many elected officials saw it as Cuomo’s way of snubbing the city and the public housing authority.
The governor’s office denied the claims.
“The funding is intended to address long-neglected needs brought to our attention by stakeholders,” a spokesman for the governor said. “We will select the most viable projects in consultation with NYCHA.”
While most of NYCHA’s budget relies on the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a federal agency, as well as the city, for funding, electeds are calling for more.
“The city is doing well, but it isn’t enough,” state Sen. James Sanders Jr. (D-South Ozone Park) said. “The governor gave NYCHA $100 million, but then broke it into pieces amounting up to $2 million each. If we want to talk about the truth, the truth is $2 million doesn’t take us very far. I have 40 percent of Queens’ public housing in my district and I can tell you $2 million cannot do much.”
Councilman Ruben Wills (D-Jamaica), who grew up in the public housing system, said when the media and many elected officials focus on the disagreement between Cuomo and de Blasio, they are focusing on the wrong point.
“We need to take a step back and look at the amount that’s being fought over,” he said. “This is $100 million, which is not a lot. I don’t want to speculate why the governor made the decision he made and I don’t think it’s the real problem. I think the real problem is the federal government. If the federal government doesn’t step up and help, NYCHA will fall apart. The city and state can’t do it by itself.”
Wills also pointed out past attempts by the city to inject funds into the housing authority, which, he said, were often used “ineffectively.”
Many city and state officials share Wills’ frustration, as more and more complexes rely almost exclusively on discretionary funds from their representatives. Council members, including Richards, Wills, Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), who represents three NYCHA complexes, and others use their capital funds to pay for crime deterrents such as safety cameras and lighting.
“I think that’s the question we have to ask,” Wills said. “Why do Council members still have to use their discretionary funds to get things done?”
However, discretionary funds are limited and would not adequately cover roof repair expenses. With that in mind, city officials have been getting creative in finding solutions.
Ocean Bay Houses, represented by Richards, was selected as the location for a pilot program called the Rental Assistance Demonstration project.
“It’s a controversial program,” Richards said. “NYCHA would relinquish power to a private developer, but it would remain affordable housing. The real beauty of the program is residents would receive brand new everything, instead of NYCHA doing patchwork repairs. Everything would be new.”
RAD is still in the planning stages and Richards has not decided whether to support or oppose it. The councilman said he has some questions about the program, specifically on the employment of local residents, but it could prove an interesting contrast to the NYCHA program.
“I don’t know if privatizing public housing is the most realistic direction to go in,” Wills said. “I think we need to look at it globally and figure out what is going wrong. Maybe we need to break down NYCHA into smaller groups and then take a look at it again. I will say privatizing public housing will streamline it. Maybe a hybrid could work. Something has to happen though, and fairly quickly.”
“The government needs to get serious, roll up their sleeves and clean out the farm,” he said. “We need to grapple with what kind of city we want and move in the direction that will take us there.”
You can reach Editor Tess McRae by calling her at (718) 357-7400 ext. 123, emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @tess_mcrae.