While the city mulls potential ways to prevent NYCHA’s neglected housing stock from caving in on itself, the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit organization that focuses on ways to improve the tri-state area, has issued a report warning of “demolition by neglect” if swift action isn’t taken to fund repairs.
“The city needs to move forward on what has already been decided and the city has a NYCHA 2.0 plan,” said Moses Gates, RPA’s vice president of housing and neighborhood planning. “They need to make NYCHA the centerpiece of their housing plan.”
Time, he added is of the essence, as many of NYCHA’s 173,762 apartments are “approaching inhabitability.”
NYCHA’s portfolio currently faces $45 billion in unmet needs, which, due to deferred maintenance and renovation work, has been compounding by $850 million a year, according to the report. From 2012-2016 for example, only 15 percent of capital needs were budgeted for and even less was actually done. Today, the average cost of repairs per apartment is roughly $180,000.
The RPA, Gates added, supports the ideas the city has to earn income at NYCHA, and wants to see them accelerated. Those plans include a revised version of the “infill” program – having private developers building housing that’s a mix of market rate and affordable on underutilized NYCHA land – as well as having landlords manage but not own NYCHA buildings at which the apartments become section 8, and selling air rights to developers.
As far as the air rights are concerned, the RPA has recommended that the city loosen the restrictions on air or development transfer rights, which currently are limited to transfers on the same block.
“We want to unlock it a lot more,” said Moses.
While allowing developers to build bigger and taller often means there will be some degree of community push back, Moses says he hopes the city — and the public — will ultimately support the projects for the sake of NYCHA residents. Even if, as RPA admitted in its report, fewer private affordable housing deals get made while resources are being directed towards public housing.
“There are a lot of concerns when you have new development. I had a new condo go up across the street from me so I have lived it, but I don’t think it’s a reason to let our public housing collapse,” Gates said. “Many things in New York real estate are a trade off but public housing residents have been on the short end of that trade off for way too long.”
The RPA has analyzed a few possible scenarios on how air rights could be expanded, from allowing them to be transferred across a street to expanding them include a half mile radius, to having them transferrable within an entire community district. Ultimately, the half mile model is the one RPA is hoping the city will allow, Gates said.
“Making things less flexible means less money for capital repairs for NYCHA,” he said. “I think they need to make sure tenants’ rights are protected and the city’s interests are protected, but we have a lot of smart people within the city who are experienced with this.”
In addition, to ensure that any funds NYCHA is entitled to are received and subsequently spent efficiently — and not sat on or siphoned off as the money is bickered over — RPA has suggested that the job go a new entity overseen by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). RPA is also suggesting that the HPD and the city’s Housing Development Corporation (HDC) be charged with forming a renovation plan.
The RPA’s report, at one point, suggests pieces of NYCHA’s portfolio could be “transferred out… in a way that would qualify for other ongoing income streams relating to supportive housing.”
This isn’t suggesting that chunks of property be sold, however, Gates said. Rather, the RPA is suggesting that their operations and maintenance be transferred to another city entity, such as a playground becoming the responsibility of the Parks Department or a community center being overseen by the Department of Aging.
Another of RPA’s suggestions is to have at least one member of NYCHA’s board that gets appointed by someone other than the mayor in the interest of transparency. That said, Gates stressed that RPA is very much in favor of mayoral control of NYCHA.
“One point of political accountability for NYCHA is important and we want to keep it that way,” he said.
While not mentioned in the report, Gates said NYCHA also needs support from the larger community and this means doing more than “kibitzing” (the Yiddish word for casually chatting or offering unsolicited advice).
“We need the business community, financial, labor. With something tangible, banks with more financing or philanthropic money. A lot of institutions have pretty powerful voices, like faith institutions and they should be raising those voices.”
In response to the report, a spokesperson for the mayor said that because some of the suggestions in the report would require unprecedented land use actions, and because it was short on details regarding transfer rights, that the report will need to be further reviewed.
However, the spokesperson added that the mayor appreciates that the RPA agrees about the need for immediate action and then brought up steps that have already been taken to fix public housing.
“This administration has made an unprecedented $6 billion investment in NYCHA to reverse decades of neglect,” the spokesperson said. “With NYCHA 2.0, we are leveraging every tool available to deliver top to bottom renovations for 175,000. We will continue to work with the monitor (that was federally appointed earlier this year), our federal counterparts and partners like the RPA to improve residents’ quality of life.”