BY TRONE DOWD
Last week, New York City Housing Authority Chair and CEO Shola Olatoye stopped by the Queens Tribune office to talk about what the future of affordable housing in Queens looks like. In our hour of discussion, Olatoye went over a number of key ideas that she hopes will change NYCHA properties for the better in the coming years.
NEXT GENERATION NYCHA
Olatoye told the Queens Tribune that NYCHA is partnering with other city agencies to improve affordable housing in the borough.
“Essentially what we’re trying to do in the housing authority is partnering with the development community, the investment community, to bring in the extra capital to make up for the significant decline in federal money, so you can deal with the capital issue and still keep things affordable,” Olatoye said.
And with that money, NYCHA hopes to improve the overall standing of their properties through different initiatives. One of the biggest of these initiatives for the housing authority is the introduction of what they’re calling “Next Generation NYCHA.” NextGen NYCHA is a 10-year plan introduced as a part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s citywide push for affordable housing. The long term plan hopes to make New York City public housing safer, cleaner and a more connected place for residents, which in turn will give these projects a sense of community. Launched in May 2015, NextGen NYCHA also hopes to improve in other aspects of the agency including increased infrastructure improvements, transparency and engagement from stakeholders in an attempt to make NYCHA more modern and effective.
“It is a very interesting turn that they are taking,” Olatoye said about the Mayor’s plan. “It really about setting the authority on a solid financial plan. The status quo can no longer stand both financially or operationally not only for our residents but certainly for us.”
WHERE THIS MONEY WILL GO
Although the money is not as steady as they would like it to be, NYCHA hopes to use these resources to help the properties that need it. Olatoye pointed out that the state has gone forward in helping NYCHA for the first type in almost two decades.
“For the first time since 1998, the state rediscovered public housing and in this budget allocated $100 million for capital investment,” Olatoye said. That money, she explained went towards critical roof repairs that were sorely needed at certain properties, according to residents.
On a federal level, Olatoye mentioned that NYCHA has over $800 million worth of construction happening throughout New York with the help of these state funds. Here in the city, the mayor is putting forward $300 million towards NYCHA project improvements as well, the first third was responsible for the repairs done in Queensbridge apartment complex earlier this year.
“There’s a ton of projects happening around the city,” Olatoye said. “We’re just going to have to coordinate to make sure we’re not ripping out the things we just put in.”
Most recently, state funding reemerged in October after the tragic death of Officer Randolph Holder at American River Crossing apartment complex in East Harlem. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a $42 million investment in security enhancements for NYCHA sites. Alongside money from the City Council, NYCHA has been able to put forth plans to add safety precautions to properties despite low financial support from federal agencies.
“The resources that Housing authorities use to support and fund security enhancements often comes from other pots of money,” Olatoye said. “So New York is not unique in that we largely rely on council appropriated dollars. The councilperson will often times allocate his or her annual appropriation based on need. And that’s basically how we’ve been able to outfit our portfolio with cameras.”
Since de Blasio was elected to office, he’s invested $210 million towards different kinds of security and public safety measures such as lighting, cameras, increase community center hours and additional NYPD presence throughout the day.
“That initiative was focused on the 15 developments that represented more than 20 percent of the city’s violent crimes in 2014,” Olatoye said. “So we’ve started construction on most of the lighting enhancements at those 15 sites.”
In fiscal year 2014 to 2015, more than $60 million in city capital dollars have been put towards 32 CCTV projects which are all expected to be completed by the end of the year. Although residents prefer the security that cameras offer, it isn’t as cost effective as the other improvements.
“When you talk to NYPD, they’ll tell you, they prefer lights and doors that function,” she said. “So in [conjunction] with the Police Department, we developed a program that, again pending funding, really tries to be more comprehensive with cameras, doors that work and lighting.”
The newly allocated money will go towards expanding these safety measures down the line.
FOR THE RESIDENTS
The Queens Tribune also talked to Olatoye about the lack of equality when it comes to maintenance at certain properties. During snowy months for example, properties like the Astoria Houses would often be cleared within moments while other sites like Pomonok Houses will not see the same kind of efficient clean up. Olatoye agreed that this needed to change.
“Ninety-four percent of the workforce is unionized, the largest being the Teamsters,” she agreed. “We largely operate on a model that is out of the early 20th century, that is Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. That is not how properties are managed, its not how real estate is managed in any setting. It’s a challenge, a real challenge. I do believe that having a more modern approach to workforce and people deployment would actually address some of those issues, whether it’s trash or snow removal.”
Olatoye mentions that some of these complex specific issues deal with the work of individual managers. She said that she hopes to knock down the barrier between the managers and herself, allowing them to make more direct decisions. By doing so, this would let them to influence their properties in a more positive way through resource deployment.
She also mentioned that NYCHA houses more than 50 percent of low-income people in New York City. Getting these individuals the services they deserve equally across the city in an environment that is less institutionalized is something that NYCHA will have to work on.
“By the nature of the funding model things have to change. A big part of NextGen NYCHA is really about changing the way we’re funded and the way that we operate to frankly adapt to our reality.”
Using their own land, and splitting the available space to include both affordable housing and market rate housing, they hope it will keep future properties from becoming what many would consider the traditional affordable housing institutionalized look and feel.
“We are the city’s largest landlord,” Olatoye said. “We need to do better.”
And through these new ideas, she hopes NYCHA will do just that.
Reach Trone Dowd at (718) 357-7400 x123, firstname.lastname@example.org or @theloniusly.