The next big housing battle on the Lower East Side is upon us. In the past month, officials with the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) have been briefing elected officials and some tenant leaders about plans to lease a huge amount of property alongside public housing to private developers for market-rate apartments and retail. Last night, at a meeting of Community Board 3’s land use committee, activists began to mobilize against the proposal, one tenant leader saying in regards to NYCHA, “if you want a war you’ve got a war.”
The cash-strapped agency has been talking about selling or leasing some of its property for years. A 2008 report from the Manhattan Borough President found that the housing authority has more than 30 million square feet of unused property rights (including parking lots, playgrounds and open space). In September, NYCHA Chairman John Rhea signaled that he was preparing to move ahead with the leasing plan as a way of narrowing the authority’s annual $60 million budget gap.
Members of the City Council, including local representatives Margaret Chin and Rosie Mendez, have been told that NYCHA plans to put out a Request for Proposals (RFP) from developers next month. The Daily News obtained “internal documents” showing an initial offering of three million square feet “in hot real estate neighborhoods, including the upper East and West Sides, the lower East Side and lower Manhattan.”
On the LES, five public housing developments are being targeted: the Smith, Baruch, LaGuardia, Campos Plaza and Meltzer Houses. No residents would be displaced by the new construction. Developers will be offered 99 year leases and would be expected to build under New York’s “80/20” program, which provides tax exemptions to developers who set aside 20% of their apartments for affordable housing. At Baruch, NYCHA envisions 175,000 square feet of new housing. At Smith, a million square feet is up for grabs on parking lots and a baseball diamond. The agency will reportedly “locate the luxury apartments so they face away from the projects, with the upscale neighbors given their own entrance on South St.” The News dubbed the plan a “Tale of Two Cities,” in reference to the prospect of low and high income residents living side-by-side.
Residents and public housing advocates have a wide range of concerns about the proposal. They oppose the elimination of scarce open space and parking, believe that 20% affordable housing in the new projects is inadequate and fear that this move is one more step towards privatizing NYCHA, ultimately destroying this country’s largest and most successful public housing system. While residents concede the housing authority has been starved of cash by city, state and federal government, they contend that the leasing plan is a shortsighted way of dealing with NYCHA’s budget crisis.
Last night, Smith Houses Tenant President Aixa Torres was fuming. “This is a travesty,” she said. “We are not going to take this… When no one wanted to live here, we stayed… if you want a war, you got a war.” Torres noted that Smith, near the Brooklyn Bridge, has endured two earthquakes, two hurricanes, 9/11 and constant gas outages. Damaris Reyes, executive director of the advocacy organization GOLES, said 20% affordable housing in the new buildings “would be absurd and would trigger all kinds of reactions in this neighborhood.” But not everyone opposes the plan. Dereese Huff, tenant association head of Campos Plaza on East 12th Street, sees an opportunity. NYCHA has a backlog of 420,000 repair orders, and many of its aging buildings require large-scale upgrades that the agency cannot afford. “I’m already making my lists (as far as) what I want them to fix” she declared.
A lot of activists are concerned that NYCHA has put the plan on the “fast track,” giving communities very little time to mobilize and that the process is almost completely lacking in transparency. Victor Bach of the Community Service Society, an advocacy group, said a mid-March RFP would probably be followed by public hearings in June. Proposed projects would probably not be subject to the city’s public land use process, meaning that community boards have no official role, he said. Reyes added, “time is short and that’s the way (NYCHA) likes it.”
During the meeting, the land use committee decided to send a letter to the housing authority asking it to hold off on the RFP until there’s outreach to impacted communities. They’ll also demand benefits for public housing residents who will be affected by the new construction and they want environmental assessments to determine how the projects would impact local services, including schools, transit and neighborhood infrastructure. Finally, the letter will demand that NYCHA make funds available for tenants to acquire legal representation (there’s an existing pot of money set aside for this purpose).
Representatives from the offices of local elected officials were in attendance last night. They will be working with the community board and advocacy organizations on the issues surrounding NYCHA’s leasing plan. Much more to come…