How a Tenant Revolt Sank NYCHA’s Biggest Overhaul Plan in Years

New York Focus, June 4, 2021

With a week left in the legislative session, New York lawmakers shelved a plan that aimed to revamp 25,000 NYCHA apartments.

Published in partnership with Gotham Gazette.

On May 21, with just ten working days to go in this year’s session, New York lawmakers added a major item to their docket: a bill that would overhaul how the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) operates tens of thousands of its public housing units, aimed at securing federal funds and private capital to tackle the authority’s $40 billion backlog of repairs.

Then, just weeks later, they shelved it. On Wednesday, State Senator Brian Kavanagh and Assemblymember Steven Cymbrowitz, chairs of the Senate and Assembly Housing Committees, said in a joint statement that they would not be advancing the plan this session.

“We have decided that further conversation, outreach, and negotiation are necessary before advancing legislation on this topic,” Kavanagh and Cymbrowitz said. “For this reason, we will hold the bill in committee for the remainder of the current legislative session…we look forward to continuing to discuss how best to meet the needs of public housing residents in the months ahead.”

The announcement puts in jeopardy NYCHA’s biggest revamp plan in years. 

Dubbed the Blueprint for Change, the plan seeks to reform how NYCHA manages repairs and construction, and, crucially, how it funds them. The plan’s main appeal, NYCHA says, is that it would allow the agency to raise more money — up to six times its current federal allocation — to pay for long overdue repairs. It would also put a new entity, the Public Housing Preservation Trust, in charge of those repairs: remediating lead and mold, fixing boilers, elevators, and stoves, and generally bringing apartments up to standard.

In the lead-up to the bill’s introduction, NYCHA sought to convince lawmakers of its urgency.

“Waiting is not an option for us,” NYCHA Chair and CEO Greg Russ told New York Focus in late May. “We’ve spent 25 years waiting on Congress…We have to act now.”

In the wake of the housing chairs’ announcement, a NYCHA spokesperson told New York Focus that the authority would work with legislators to pass the Blueprint in next year’s session. “We remain committed to Blueprint for Change, which we will further refine as we continue to engage with residents and other stakeholders,” the spokesperson said.

Many lawmakers, however, have been wary of Russ’ approach since the beginning, as it relies on transferring NYCHA apartments from Section 9 — traditional public housing — to the voucher program known as Section 8.

“I think, in essence, it would end public housing as we know it,” said Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, whose district covers more than a dozen NYCHA developments in the Lower East Side and Chinatown. “It’s a huge risk.”

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