Last night, the New York City Housing Authority took its road show to another housing development on the Lower East Side. NYCHA Commissioner Margarita Lopez, a longtime LES resident, has been tasked with the responsibility of explaining the cash-strapped agency’s plan to lease property for market rate development in order to close a huge funding gap. The latest information session was held in the gym of the Rutgers housing development, but was mostly intended for residents of the neighboring LaGuardia Houses.
NYCHA intends to offer 99 year leases to private developers at eight Manhattan housing projects, five of them on the Lower East Side (Smith, Baruch, LaGuardia, Campos Plaza Houses, plus Meltzer Towers). During the presentation, housing authority officials detailed the plan at LaGuardia and attempted to tamp down rumors about the controversial proposal.
Two sites are being targeted on the 10 acre, 12 building campus. The first location, a parking lot next to the Little Flower Playground on Madison Street, could accommodate a 135,000 square foot building. A second parking lot, right around the corner on Rutgers Street could support a 120,000 square foot building. As previously reported, 80% of the apartments would be market rate rentals; 20% would be classified as “affordable.” Last night officials said the affordable units would be available to people earning no more than 60% of “area median income (AMI).” A family of four, for example, couldn’t make more than about $50,000 to qualify.
Most of the presentation focused on the reasons NYCHA is going down this road. In an appearance last month at the Smith Houses, Lopez declined to offer any specifics about the plan and was sharply criticized by tenants. Since that time, she and other NYCHA officials have retooled their strategy, and begun explaining the plans in separate briefings at Campos Plaza and Baruch. Last night, Lopez emphatically told residents the plan should come as no surprise since she has personally been talking about the developing proposal at public meetings for at least six years.
She urged tenants to disregard rumors. “Some people have chosen to misinform the people of public housing,” she asserted. Raising her voice for emphasis, Lopez promised, “we are not going to take away one single unit of public housing… This plan is about making public housing stronger.” She added, “I want to stop the rumors and the innuendo that Mayor Bloomberg is going to destroy public housing. That is a lie.”
Noting that Washington has failed to fully fund public housing, Lopez said, “everyone has got to wake up about the reality of the situation.” Part of that reality, officials explained is that the housing agency lacks the billions of dollars required to make critical repairs in its aging buildings (LaGuardia was opened in 1957). It’s estimated that this one complex needs about $80 million in capital funding over the next five years.
NYCHA is hoping the private leasing plan will generate $50 million/year in new revenue. Fred Harris, executive vice president of the agency’s real estate division, emphasized that the parcels would be leased rather than sold outright, meaning that NYCHA could count on new revenue every year to help close it’s budget deficit. “This is money no one can take away from us,” Lopez added.
Some residents were concerned about the loss of parking spaces. The officials said they would create new parking elsewhere at LaGuardia and that anyone “with a legal parking permit” would be accommodated. They also said it might be necessary to relocate several sculptures in grassy areas to make room for new walkways. Various facilities, including a senior center, would not be affected by the new construction. As part of the plan, the power supply for the new construction will also serve as auxiliary power for LaGuardia during future hurricanes and other emergencies. Another resident asked whether NYCHA will conduct thorough environmental reviews to better understand the impact new buildings might have on neighborhoods. Officials said federal and state regulations require the agency to study the potential impact air quality, schools and transportation. NYCHA, they said, has every intention of conducting those reviews.
Previous reports indicated that the housing authority would release an RFP (request for proposals) this month. Last night a NYCHA spokesperson said a public roll out of the plan, including the RFP release, would not come until briefings are held at all impacted public housing developments.
Last month, elected officials sent a letter to NYCHA asking for detailed information about the plan and calling on the agency to suspend the process until affected communities can be properly consulted. As of today, they have received no response to that letter.