Can NYCHA Activists Rouse A 'Political Sleeping Giant'?

Activists attend a protest on Sunday to protest NYCHA's privatization plan.
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Activists attend a protest on Sunday to protest NYCHA's privatization plan. Photo by Elizabeth Kim

Members of a newly formed activist group rallied at City Hall yesterday to mobilize New York City Housing Authority tenants against the agency’s privatization plan, appealing to years of pent-up anger at deteriorating living conditions and an increasingly progressive political environment.

“I know you think you can’t change the status quo,” said Norman Siegel, a prominent civil rights attorney and former executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, speaking on the City Hall steps on a chilly and gray Sunday afternoon. Referring to recent protests that broke out over the lack of heat and hot water at the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, he continued, “You saw last weekend at MDC, people came out on the streets and began to change incrementally [the status quo]. We can do the same thing here.”

Siegel added: “There are 400,000 people in public housing. You are a political sleeping giant.”

Facing $32 billion in capital repairs, the city is seeking to allow private developers to manage 62,000 units at 21 NYCHA sites across Manhattan and Brooklyn. The city is also seeking to develop infill projects that would be built on undeveloped land within certain NYCHA complexes, in exchange for payments that would be used to help maintain the existing buildings.

The private management plan, which comes under the federal Rental Assistance Demonstration program, would involve the conversion of all 62,000 apartments to federal Section 8 housing, leaving the day-to-day management of buildings and repairs to private investors. Under the program, tenants would pay no more than 30 percent of their adjusted income toward rent. Critics of RAD have charged that the program involves insufficient vetting and too little oversight by NYCHA. Last week, an investigation by WNYC found that a private property manager hired by the agency to operate nearly 2,500 units under RAD has a history of building violations and tenant complaints.

Sunday’s call to action involved about 20 protesters organized by a newly formed group called Fight For NYCHA, which Siegel has agreed to represent.

One of the speakers at yesterday's event was Lenora Fulani, a two-time presidential candidate with the New Alliance Party and longtime political activist. She told Gothamist that the issues around public housing should concern all New Yorkers. "This isn’t just a fight for people being attacked," she said. "It’s about what kind of city we want and how we want to live our lives."

“The free market system is never going to create low-cost housing to low-income New Yorkers,” said Lewis Flores, a Queens resident and founder of Fight For NYCHA, adding, “This goes against the agreement we made as a society when NYCHA was formed.”

Criticism of the city's handling of NYCHA has been ratcheting up. On Monday, the New York Times reported that Stanley Brezenoff, one of the mayor's closest advisors and the outgoing interim chair of NYCHA, refused to sign the city's recent agreement with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development that installs a federal monitor but includes no new federal funding.

“I’m a city guy. If I care about anything in my professional life, it’s the well-being of New York City,” Brezenoff told the Times. “Honestly, that’s the prism I was looking at it from. Starting from: Where the hell is HUD and money?”

In recent weeks, NYCHA tenants have turned out at public meetings in both Manhattan and Brooklyn, calling out the agency for mismanagement and persistent problems with heat and hot water. On the Upper East Side, many tenants at the Holmes housing complexes are opposing a plan to allow a private developer to build a mixed-income infill development atop a playground at the project.

But it’s unclear whether organizers can ignite a broader citywide movement.

Denise Harris, who has lived in NYCHA’s Richmond Terrace complex in Staten Island for 17 years, acknowledged that while many tenants oppose the agency’s plans, getting them to come out to protest is difficult.

Harris, who said she has amassed 2,000 signatures from fellow tenants against NYCHA’s privatization, traveled an hour and a half—via bus, ferry, and subway—to attend Sunday’s protest.

“I try to fight for other residents but I can’t do it by myself, ” she said. “I need their help.”

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