In their ongoing battle with City Hall, tenant leaders from New York City public housing have become bedfellows with an unlikely partner: the federal government.
Following a year-long legal battle with the Housing Authority that resulted in the appointment of a federal monitor to oversee the agency, those NYCHA leaders and other tenants are hopeful that the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will right some of the wrongs they say Mayor Bill de Blasio has committed at tenants’ expense during his years in office.
“I can’t say that my mayor is here with me,” said Douglass Houses tenant president Carmen Quinones during a Feb. 22 public forum at the Upper Manhattan NYCHA complex. “I’m a mother first. I’m a grandmother first. I don’t like how I’m living. I’ve had enough.”
She and other tenant presidents, including two from the South Bronx who attended the event, threw their weight behind HUD’s northeast representative Lynne Patton, who came to promise that “change is coming” to public housing in New York City.
Patton recently spent a highly publicized two weeks staying with NYCHA tenants to display her sensitivity to tenants’ suffering, including a weeklong stop at Patterson Houses in Mott Haven. She promised that President Trump and his newly-appointed federal monitor will make a dent in NYCHA’s repair backlog.
However, although the forum was loosely designed to discuss numerous topics related to NYCHA, it quickly escalated into a debate over the Rental Assistance Demonstration program, or RAD, a federal policy that residents and advocates fear will lead to mass displacement. The policy allows cities around the country to pay private developers to fix the extensive backlog of repairs those cities face. Tenant leaders worry that developers will ultimately demand such astronomical returns on their investment that low-income tenants will be kicked out and their apartments will be privatized.
But although the RAD project was not on the original agenda as a topic of discussion, nervous tenants demanded it be discussed just as the forum was ending.
Patton tried to reassure tenants that RAD is not bad. She encouraged skeptical tenants to “Talk to the residents who live there” to alleviate their fears, adding that under RAD “Your rights remain intact. The only thing that changes is the quality of your apartment.” Still, she conceded that the new federal monitor would be open to consider other options to improve NYCHA conditions if RAD falls short.
In November, Betances Houses in Mott Haven was converted to Section 8 housing through RAD. Announcement of that conversion occasioned a visit to Mott Haven from the mayor, who promised that implementation of the Rental Assistance Demonstration would not lead to rent raises for residents or the displacement so many fear.
But tenant representatives don’t see how that can work.
“They are making promises that they definitely can’t keep,” said Ronald Topping, tenant president at John Adams Houses. “If federal funding decides to pull out, then you have to cover the difference. What protection do you have? There is no safety net.”
Danny Barber, the resident leader at Jackson Houses and president of NYCHA’s Citywide Council of Presidents, said that the program is simply not designed to work in a city like New York.
“What worked in rural America with RAD, doesn’t work in big city America,” said Barber. “RAD was geared towards smaller properties, not large monstrosities like we have in New York.”
It was no coincidence that residents anxiously brought up the topic at the Douglass Houses forum. Douglass is next on the city’s list of future RAD developments, NYCHA officials announced last fall.