Five years after the New York City Housing Authority turned over thousands of public housing apartments to for-profit operators, tenants living in the privately-run developments in Queens and the Bronx were evicted at an average rate that was three times higher than under authority management, according to a report released Thursday, prompting a promise of greater oversight.
Out of the six public housing complexes that NYCHA outsourced to private companies to manage between December 2016 and February of 2020, removal of tenants in the two large developments “significantly” increased after the takeover, according to the report by the advocacy group Human Rights Watch.
Newly elected Councilmember Alexa Avilés, who took over this month as chair of the City’s Council’s Committee on Public Housing, which oversees NYCHA, called the report’s findings alarming and promised increased scrutiny.
“Families in our district and across the city are still experiencing housing insecurity and suffering from the devastating effects of this pandemic. Yet we now confirm what tenants have long suspected,” Avilés said.
One of those complexes was Ocean Bay Apartments in Far Rockaway, Queens, home to 3,700 people. Residents told Human Rights Watch that the new property manager, Wavecrest Management Group, was “more aggressive” in evicting them.
They “put you out faster,” one tenant told the advocacy group, according to the report.
Under a controversial program, NYCHA plans to outsource the management of one-third of its public housing inventory to for-profit operators in an effort to attract private funding to help pay for building repairs and maintenance. The program was created in 2012 under a federal effort known as the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD).
Currently, there are 9,500 public housing apartments under private management and an additional 28,000 apartments are in “active pre-development” to be turned over to private operators, according to NYCHA’s website.
Ocean Bay Apartments, with 1,395 units across 24 buildings, was the first group of public housing in New York City converted to private management in December 2016.
Between January of 2017 to August of 2019, there were roughly 50 households evicted from Ocean Bay Apartments, according to the report. Of those, 18 households were kicked out for non-payment of rent and 26 others lost their homes because they didn’t sign the lease or broke a provision in the contract for reasons other than a failure to pay rent. The report said the remaining six households left without notifying management.
The permanent eviction rate for NYCHA-managed buildings was 0.3% from 2017 to 2019 while the permanent eviction rates at Ocean Bay Apartments were 1.4% in 2017 and 1.2% in 2018 and 2019, according to Jackson Gandour, a fellow at Human Rights Watch and an author of the report.
The group also determined there had been an erosion of residents’ rights in public housing developments under private management and a lack of oversight by NYCHA and the federal housing authority of the city’s privatization program known as Permanent Affordability Commitment Together (PACT).
“What’s worrying is that, you know, because this program basically involves a whole host of new actors, and it seems like the city isn’t sufficiently keeping track of what’s going on,” Gandour said in an interview.
Wavecrest Management Group, which also manages Betances, a group of 10 public housing buildings in the Bronx that also saw a higher eviction rate, declined to be interviewed.
"Our first and most important priority will always be the well-being of our residents and keeping them affordably in their homes; and through the RAD program, we are able to provide thousands of homes across New York City with critical and vastly overdue improvements," Susan Camerata, the company’s chief financial officer, said in an email.
Barbara Brancaccio, a spokeswoman for NYCHA, said conditions at public housing developments have suffered due to long-term federal disinvestment, but added that the authority will use “innovative” strategies to raise capital, make improvements and protect tenant rights.
NYCHA cooperated with Human Rights Watch on the report but Brancaccio said it contains “numerous” unsubstantiated claims about the housing authority’s PACT program. She did not elaborate.
Councilmember Avilés said she would use her role as chair of the City Council’s public housing committee to scrutinize NYCHA’s private management program.
“I will ensure tenants of PACT developments are protected and informed of their rights and that private management entities are held accountable,” Avilés said. “As long as tenants lack full protections in RAD/PACT developments, I am opposed to any future conversions. Not one more.”
While tenants in some privately-run NYCHA buildings have seen improvements, other issues such as mold, lead paint, and extended periods of time without heat have persisted.
Anthony Sanchez, 39, a schoolteacher whose family lives at Hope Gardens in Bushwick, Brooklyn, said tenants didn’t have heat or hot water for nearly a week in January 2019 after Pinnacle City Living took over the management of the public housing building.
“We were literally taking birdbaths. I had to heat water on the stove for my daughters,” said Sanchez, who added that Pinnacle did not make repairs until he called his state senator, Julia Salazar.
According to Sanchez, a neighbor in her 70s, who spoke limited English and suffered from a variety of medical conditions that left her essentially homebound, was unable to get to the management office to certify that she was eligible to remain in her apartment. Sanchez said he and other neighbors notified Pinnacle employees of the elderly woman’s predicament, but Pinnacle sent her a letter threatening eviction anyway.
“She’s panicking. She’s crying,” Sanchez told Human Rights Watch, which said it reviewed the eviction notice sent by the company.
Sanchez said he called and emailed Pinnacle, asking the company to send an employee to the elderly woman’s apartment with the necessary forms, but he said nothing happened.
Sanchez again went to Senator Salazar for help, and said his elderly neighbor was not kicked out of her apartment as a result.
Pinnacle declined to comment.