A once long-shot plan to demolish and rebuild public housing complexes in Chelsea is gaining new traction as tenant support builds and a pair of private developers say it’s likely cheaper than repairing the aging towers.
The Fulton Houses and Chelsea-Elliott Houses are home to thousands of people across roughly 2,000 apartments, but residents say deteriorating conditions, heat outages and busted elevators make life difficult, and often unsafe.
The residents, who have the final say on any demolition or renovation plan, initially rejected a 2019 proposal to tear down at least two buildings that date back to the 1960s. After an exhaustive community effort, they chose private managers to renovate the existing apartments instead. But with costs mounting and the developers planning to build mixed-income housing nearby, many are now warming to the idea of demolishing their old buildings and starting anew.
“It's too many leaks and no water, or no hot water, no heat,” said Darlene Waters, president of the Chelsea-Elliott Houses Tenant Association, adding broken elevators and dangerous mold blooms to the list of problems. “People shouldn't have to live this way.”
Repairs to the pair of complexes were initially estimated to cost $366 million in 2021, according to NYCHA and the firms the tenants picked to manage the properties. But over the years, they say, the price of repairs has ballooned to around $1 billion — a sum the managers, Related Companies and Essence Development, say is comparable to the cost of erecting new buildings.
The two firms already plan to put up new mixed-income housing, including pricey apartments, in the space around existing buildings. But tenants of the NYCHA complexes want in on the new construction, Waters said. They are beginning a building-by-building engagement process to learn more about the plans and eventually vote on how to proceed.
“It’s a community,” Waters said inside her office earlier this month. “Everyone has the right to know and the right to choose what they want. So this is the way we do it.”
Her desk was covered in flyers and sign-up sheets for upcoming information sessions. Behind her sat boxes of space heaters that were to be distributed to tenants without heat. As she talked, a rodent scampered across the room.
The developers have proposed erecting new apartment buildings while tenants continue living in existing ones. Once a new building is complete, tenants would move in from the old one. They would then demolish the vacant buildings to make way for the new public housing sites, or one of the proposed mixed-income complexes. The companies say they will share more details about specific locations at upcoming tenant meetings.
Waters said she supports the replacement plan, but the idea is not without critics and skeptics.
Residents have raised questions, like where exactly the buildings would go and whether they would retain the same rent levels and lease rights they have now. Tenants who spoke with Gothamist around the campuses this month also questioned whether their new apartments would match their current accommodations — a two-bedroom for a two-bedroom, for example.
What’s important to them is making sure you pay your rent.
Rodney Johnson, a cook who has lived in the Elliott Houses since 2013, says he wonders who will get “priority” for new buildings, and who would be left behind — like people who owe back rent.
“It’s not going to be that easy,” he said outside his building last week. “What’s important to them is making sure you pay your rent.”
Raymond Sepulveda grew up in the Chelsea Houses and said his mother has been living in the same apartment since the 1960s.
“I’d be concerned about her,” he said. “Everything is about money today. If you don’t have money, you ain’t off.”
The developers and tenant leaders are trying to address these sorts of concerns.
“We need to make sure that our protections we have with NYCHA continue going on with Related [and Essence],” said Fulton Houses Tenant Association President Miguel Acevedo, who supports the demolition plan. “That’s the most important thing.”
The plan would take up to six years to complete, but would limit the displacement that would otherwise occur during intensive renovations, said Jamar Adams, the head of Essence Development. Adams said tenants in the new buildings would retain the same rights they have now because NYCHA would still oversee their housing.
"If residents select the new construction option, their rights will be exactly the same as under the rehab plan,” he said.
Jon Weinstein, a spokesperson for Related, deferred to Adams and said the company looks “forward to working with our partners at Essence to help fulfill the residents’ vision.”
Tearing down the apartment buildings would mark a major departure from prior practices at NYCHA campuses citywide.
We reached the point just a few weeks ago where we have a fairly good critical mass of residents who are saying that they would like to see full rebuilds.
New York City has overseen only a handful of NYCHA demolitions, even as public housing teardowns became the norm nationwide following decades of disinvestment, political assaults and a retreat from the idea of government as developer and landlord. In cities throughout the country, like New Orleans and Chicago, demolition decisions were made with little to no input from the residents. The teardowns forced families to look for homes on the open market amid a yearslong affordable housing shortage.
Tenant leaders and housing experts say what’s happening in Chelsea is different — this time, the residents are in charge.
“The idea of having your home torn down is a scary proposition,” said Iziah Thompson, a senior policy analyst at the Community Service Society of New York who specializes in public housing research. “But this is the way the process should go, where residents are in the lead on this and it does feel democratic.”
The plan and the private management structure come as NYCHA contends with serious financial problems, forcing the agency to draw from its reserves to cover expenses last year. NYCHA is also seeking millions of dollars in unpaid rent at the same time as rising costs further strain its budget.
Jonathan Gouveia, NYCHA’s executive vice president for real estate, said the agency supports whatever proposal the tenants decide on.
“We reached the point just a few weeks ago where we have a fairly good critical mass of residents who are saying that they would like to see full rebuilds,” Gouveia said. “One of the things that we have shifted to within NYCHA the last few years is to really make sure the residents are front and center and that we're listening to them.”
Elliott Houses resident Mike Noble, a member of the local community board, said he supports the teardown plan as the clearest way to address the problems in his building and hears the concerns of his neighbors.
“This is the only asset that many folks here have. And when it appears to be in jeopardy, people freak out,” he said. “And I understand that.”
But he said the final decision should be up to the tenants, not outsiders, developers or NYCHA.
“We know better than anyone else,” he said.