The crowd was sparse but those who did show up for a briefing by New York City Housing Authority officials last night at Bard High School made sure their frustration and anger were readily apparent. It was the latest briefing on NYCHA’s controversial plan to build luxury housing on 15 parcels throughout Manhattan in order to narrow a huge budget deficit.
Following meetings in the past couple of weeks at Campos Plaza and the LaGuardia Houses, the troubled agency’s general manager, Cecil House, brought the show to the tenants of the Baruch Houses, New York’s largest public housing complex. In previous stories, we have documented NYCHA’s talking points, which are designed to counter fears that the plan to offer 99-year leases to private developers is the first step towards the destruction of public housing in New York. Today, we’ll focus on the new details revealed about the proposal at Baruch, as well as the strong negative reaction heard from residents and tenant advocates last night.
Here’s the slide officials flashed up on a big screen — showing the site under consideration at Baruch. It’s a parking lot with 54 spaces near East Houston and Columbia streets. The 26,000 square foot site could support a 350,000 square foot residential tower. Although he did not volunteer this information until pressed by a tenant organizer, NYCHA real estate head Fred Harris said there could be about 350 apartments here. 70 would be permanently affordable, available to applicants earning no more than 60% of “Area Median Income” (around $50,000 for a family of four). As in previous briefings, residents were promised that new spaces would be found for any permit holders who loses their spaces due to the new development.
In each project, 20% of the new apartments would be affordable. NYCHA officials are resisting pushing that number higher, saying the whole point is to raise $30-$50 million per year from the leases. This can only be accomplished, they argue, if most of the apartments are market-rate units.
NYCHA is required to “engage” tenants as part of its application to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development seeking permission to lease the sites to private developers. In the last couple of weeks, local activists have become convinced the agency has no interest in true engagement and is moving at breakneck speed to implement the plan. The agency’s chairman, John Rhea, told state lawmakers on Friday, that a request for proposals would be released by the end of next month.
Three earlier meetings were led by NYCHA Commissioner Margarita Lopez, a former Lower East Side City Councilwoman and longtime affordable housing activist. Many of her old friends were dismayed by her performance at these sessions. Lopez was not present last night. Damaris Reyes, executive director of Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), the tenant advocacy group, got her start in community organizing working for Councilwoman Lopez back in 1998. At the Bard High School meeting Reyes, a Baruch tenant herself, told House, “there have now been multiple meetings in which your colleague was disrespectful to residents. So thank you for being here”
During the evening, speaker after speaker blasted NYCHA for mismanagement, for deceiving residents about past plans and for failing to take care of Baruch, a complex that opened in 1954. One woman said, “This is not fair. You can’t even take care of us. there aren’t even benches for seniors to sit on. How are you going to deal with a whole new building?”
Teresa Pedroza, a member of GOLES, read a lengthy statement touching on many issues. “You say you need money,” she said. “Stop paying the NYPD (the housing agency reimburses the police department millions of dollars), stop paying consultants (to tell NYCHA executives what’s wrong with the agency). The neighborhood is full of half empty luxury buildings. We need affordable housing.” Pedroza concluded, turning to the audience, “Fight back, get angry, don’t take this sitting down!”
House insisted that the plan is not a “done deal” in spite of concerns from residents that NYCHA is determined to move ahead with its proposal no matter how much opposition emerges. But he conceded that the RFP would, in fact, be released in a few weeks. In the last 24 hours, elected officials and local community boards finally received a reply to a letter they sent to the mayor a month ago requesting a meeting to discuss the leasing plan. We hope to have more details about that later today.
In the meantime, NYCHA has posted some detailed information about its plan online. the next meeting, at the Smith Houses, is expected to take place tomorrow night. State legislators, including LES Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, have urged the agency to release a comprehensive plan, rather than dispensing biys of information for select audiences.