Now that the government shutdown is on hold, a reckoning once again seems imminent between Mayor Bill de Blasio and Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson over the fate of New York City’s troubled public housing system. In a December letter to the New York City Housing Authority last month, Carson wrote that if the city can’t demonstrate that it can meet basic standards of safety and habitability by the end of January, the government will “exercise appropriate remedies,” possibly setting in motion a federal takeover of the city’s public housing.
The 400,000 families living in public housing in New York City, who’ve suffered through rampant heat outages, a lead paint crisis, and myriad daily indecencies from leaks to rats to mold to broken elevators, are eager for a resolution of the agency’s long-standing problems. But many of them tell Gothamist that even as the feds and city negotiate the fate of their homes, their own voices are being excluded from these high-level discussions.
“The people who live here: Start with them,” says Althea Judge, 44, outside of the Albany Houses in Crown Heights, after itemizing her concerns about lead paint and poor air quality. “Maybe start with some people who really feel dedicated and want to do it.”
Carmen Quiñones, president of the Frederick Douglass Houses in Upper Manhattan, says that her development is in desperate need of new pipes, which are crumbling and have caused significant flooding in multiple buildings. There were also heat outages one weekend this month when temperatures dipped into the single digits.
She believes the city should look beyond tenant leaders for input.
“We have so many intelligent residents here that know what to do, but you need to give us the chance to do it,” says Quiñones. “We know what’s wrong. We know if you don’t fix the pipes, these leaks are not going to stop. You can camouflage it, you can paint [over] it, that’s not going to do it.”
January 31st is also the deadline for New York City, HUD and federal prosecutors to respond to U.S. District Judge William Pauley III, who is presiding over a federal lawsuit alleging that NYCHA exposed its residents to dangerous levels of lead, and then lied to prosecutors about remediation. Last fall, Judge Pauley rejected a consent decree, or settlement between the parties, in which New York City promised $2 billion for repairs and capital needs and tasked the court with appointing a monitor to oversee repairs. In his ruling, Pauley accused the federal government of shirking its responsibility to NYCHA and said the proposed plan to pull the housing authority into a state of good repair lacked teeth.
Bernice Mayo, a retired school safety agent from the Cedric Houses in the Bronx, tells Gothamist she isn’t necessarily opposed to a federal takeover. “The way the city is going with this, if we would be better off with federal, let them have it,” she says. “Because this is ridiculous. We should not have to live like this.”
But others said they have little hope in the federal government, especially after the month-long shutdown.
“I know about the government lockdown and everything, right?” says 47-year-old Milfort Brown, carrying groceries into the Albany Houses in Crown Heights. “It’s bugged out that all of these people are crying because they’re broke, it’s fucked up! I was surprised I got food stamps today.”
“What’s the federal government going to do? Nothing,” adds his friend Jeffrey Brown, 57. “The federal government won’t be more transparent—we won’t even see them. But we see the city workers out here, we see the mayor all the time, and we see all the advocates who try to work with the mayor.”
Cynthia Tibbs, who lives in a row of rare NYCHA-owned brownstones on the Upper West Side, says she has more confidence in Judge Pauley than any politician. Tibbs says she was moved when Judge Pauley welcomed dozens of NYCHA residents to testify in federal court last September. “This judge has listened to tenants come in there and tell their story,” she says.
By contrast, “Ben Carson already feels that we’re too spoiled,” Tibbs adds, citing a time the secretary chided a single mother that if she wanted to escape poverty she should get married. “He doesn’t understand that people actually work for a living in public housing.”
Legal Aid Society attorney Lucy Newman notes that the original consent decree rejected by Judge Pauley didn’t include much opportunity for NYCHA residents to weigh in: a minimum of two meetings per year between a federal monitor and a so-called “Community Advisory Committee.” Newman dismisses this language as “very, very bland and vague,” and calls for more explicit language about who would be on the advisory committee, plus a guarantee that residents would have input on any candidates for a NYCHA monitor.
Tibbs says if receivership is necessary, she’d rather see it be judicial. A 2003 U.S. General Accounting Office report found that while court-appointed and federal receivers have the same authority to take over management and oversee repairs, court-appointed receivers “are more insulated from local politics and better able to make necessary changes.”
“I don’t think HUD is in a position to deal with receivership,” predicts Victor Bach, a Senior Policy Analyst with the Community Service Society. “They’re understaffed as they are. This administration is so hostile to public housing, there’s really no reason to assume that they want to do an effective job at receivership and preserving public housing in New York City.”
Bach adds that, ideally, it won’t come to this. “I’d much prefer that there be a local consent decree that the judge approves that meets his criticisms,” he says. “And that we move forward with some sort of federally-appointed monitor to oversee the process for the next year.”
Viviana Wrenn, a 28-year-old mother of one, says she has dealt with heat outages, a rats nest behind her sink, and peeling paint inside her apartment at the Stebbins Avenue-Hewitt Place Houses in the Bronx. “Our future is so uncertain,” she says. “I just think we're damned if we do and we're damned if we don't, and it's so scary."
Wrenn explains that she has an idea, though she could use “a little bit more help” in developing it.
“I think all of the residents and all of NYCHA should get together and communicate with each other and put online like, ‘I have my ceiling open,’ or ‘mushrooms in my bathroom,’ because NYCHA lies about statistics,” she says. “I think if we all got together and unified, I think we would be able to really show what's going on and be able to get these issues resolved without needing to have the federal government take over.”