Last Friday, local elected officials held a news conference outside City Hall, calling on the New York City Housing Authority to take “tenant input” more seriously as it rushes forward with a plan to build market-rate apartments on public housing property. These types of events aren’t normally very newsworthy, but this one turned out to be pretty interesting.
Before the speeches even began, Mayor Bloomberg exchanged words with two local lawmakers, U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez and City Council member Margaret Chin. The mayor, who just happened to be arriving at his office as the officials were gathering, walked over to offer his own opinion about the NYCHA property plan.
According to Chin and Velazquez, he said the money-raising scheme is unavoidable since the federal and state governments have drastically cut funding for public housing. As Bloomberg continued walking, Chin said, she asked whether he could help influence members of Congress to increase funding. There was no response. Once the news conference began, Velazquez went a step further, suggesting that the mayor should stop donating to the campaigns of Republican lawmakers who have repeatedly blocked President Obama’s budget priorities, including more generous NYCHA subsidies. In the last election cycle, Bloomberg’s “super-PAC” contributed nearly $10 million to candidates across the political spectrum.
The city, state and federal office-holders, who stood alongside tenant leaders Friday, said they understood NYCHA’s need to raise money for repairs and other capital improvements. But they accused the housing agency of simply going through the motions to meet federal requirements mandating community engagement. “So far it has not been a meaningful process, ” Chin said. “I don’t want to just be a name you cross off on your checklist.” Velazquez agreed, adding that she believes NYCHA is “undervaluing its property.” She called on the authority to undergo an independent audit to determine how much NYCHA’s development sites are really worth. Housing officials have estimated the leasing plan would generate around $50 million per year.
But as lawmakers delivered their remarks, an invited guest, Leila Santiago of the Meltzer senior housing building on East 1st Street, interupted, saying “we disagree… we don’t want the plan and I’m the tenant!” For the next several minutes, Council member Rosie Mendez, Velazquez and Chin all tried to speak with her individually. Santiago told us she’s had two hip operations and fears losing a seating area that NYCHA plans to eliminate as part of the development proposal at Meltzer Towers. Before the news conference wrapped up, she got her chance at the podium, and did not miss an opportunity to point a finger at Mayor Bloomberg, who she claimed is the “real instigator” of the NYCHA plan.
Later, the Council members convened an oversight hearing of the housing committee, grilling NYCHA Chairman John Rhea about many of their concerns. During the questioning, Housing Committee Chair Mendez asked the housing authority to commit to a full land use process, including a formal environmental review, before developers are selected at each NYCHA site. Rhea rejected the idea, saying “the city’s own rules don’t require it.” Council member Chin argued that the agency has an obligation to undergo a rigorous public process because the properties are “publicly owned.” Rhea also rejected this assertion, saying NYCHA land is actually held by a “public benefit corporation.”
The housing authority plans to release a request for proposals laste this month.