Residents of the Smith Houses packed a gymnasium on Madison Street last night for a tense “emergency tenant meeting” to discuss the New York City Housing Authority’s plan to lease some of its property for luxury development. They were greeted by NYCHA board member Margarita Lopez, who struggled to tamp down what she called “rumors” concerning the proposal.
A week ago, the Daily News reported that the cash-strapped agency would release an RFP (request for proposals) next month seeking developers for parking lots, playgrounds and other spaces at eight of its developments, five of them on the Lower East Side. The new construction, the News reported, would consist of 80% market rate housing and 20% affordable housing. Around $50 million in expected annual revenues would be plowed back into the public housing developments, which require billions in repairs and upgrades. On the LES, Smith, as well as the La Guardia Houses, the Baruch Houses, Meltzer (senior housing) and Campos Plaza (on East 12th Street) would be impacted. Many of the details in the newspaper report matched up with very general briefings given to members of the City Council and tenant leaders in the past month.
Lopez, who represented the LES in the City Council before joining NYCHA, told tenants, “I am here to put a stop to the rumors.” Knocking down the idea that an RFP would be released by mid-March, she said “NYCHA will have nothing to show you next month or the month after that. This process is just getting started.” Lopez added that “it’s the intention of the (housing authority) board to present to the stakeholders (tenants and elected officials) what is to be done and it is a process in which we are going to work together.” Attempting to explain the confusion that has been swirling in the past week, she suggested that “preliminary” plans have been wrongly characterized as final proposals. “Unfortunately this has become weird and so here we are now,” she said. “The RFP is not done. Period.”
The meeting was led by Smith Tenant Association President Aixa Torres and Damaris Reyes, executive director of Good Old Lower East Side. City Council member Margaret Chin was in attendance, along with representatives from the offices of most LES elected officials. It was standing room only; worried residents lined the aisles and the back of the gymnasium. Translation was provided in Spanish and Chinese. Torres reiterated what she’d said at a Community Board 3 meeting last week — that NYCHA must ditch plans to allow new development on a parking lot at Smith. The News reported that the RFP would allow for one-million square feet on a parcel along South Street.
Lopez said “some rumors are accurate and some are not.” For the most part, she was not specific, but speaking about the proposed development parcel at Smith, she asserted, “parking will not be eliminated. New construction techniques (which she did not detail) will preserve all parking.”
Following Lopez’s remarks, residents were given an opportunity to ask questions. Many of them made no effort to hide their anger and frustration with the housing authority. Maritza Santiago said she moved to Smith seven years ago after high rise development came to the Bronx, driving rents up throughout her neighborhood. Standing a few feet from Lopez, she said, “A plan will be implemented, you said. What plan? Will the building be sold?… Somewhere along the line we are going to get pushed out.” Another resident raised his voice, telling Lopez, “there is nothing for us here. You’re not building nothin’ for our community!”
Lopez responded, “Not a single unit of public housing is going to disappear.” Council member Margaret Chin added, “we are going to make sure that no one is getting displaced. We (local elected officials) are all working together. The commissioner told me” that no apartments in public housing developments would be lost as a result of the NYCHA plan. Aixa Torres, the tenant association president, said her board had begun to seek legal counsel, adding, “let me be clear. We are going to fight.”
Jonathan Gardenhire, a 19-year old vice president of the tenant association, showed no fear in challenging Lopez. Prefacing his remarks by saying, “I respect you and know what you have done for the LES,” he noted that mayoral candidates have vowed to replace the NYCHA board and observed, “you came here and I look at you and you are just covering your ass.” Gardenhire, who was present for a briefing on the plan, said housing authority official Leroy Williams told tenant leaders, “this is NYCHA’s property and we can do what we want with it.”
Residents and community activists have expressed a wide range of concerns about the proposal. They believe there needs to be a lot more than 20% affordable housing. Others want specific guarantees from NYCHA concerning repairs and capital improvements that will be made. At Smith, the tenant association expressed worries about conflicts that could arise when affluent market rate tenants move in alongside public housing residents. There are also questions about the impact of, perhaps, a thousand or more new apartments, on schools, transportation, sewage and other utilities.
A week ago, Community Board 3, elected officials and advocacy organizations agreed to send a letter to NYCHA calling on the agency to put a temporary stop to the RFP process and to consult in a more meaningful way with all stakeholders. That letter is still being drafted. Lopez promised NYCHA would hold a public meeting to discuss its plans but she offered no timetable.