Federal Monitor to Oversee NYCHA

If you’ve opened a newspaper in the last few months, there’s no doubt that you’ve encountered an article about the decrepit conditions faced by tenants who live in buildings managed by the New York City Housing Authority.

If you’ve opened a newspaper in the last few months, there’s no doubt that you’ve encountered an article about the decrepit conditions faced by tenants who live in buildings managed by the New York City Housing Authority.

From lead paint and mold to a lack of heat and hot water during the winter’s coldest days, there is clearly a crisis in our city’s public housing system — which is home to more than 400,000 people and is the largest source of low-rent apartments in the city. Our government’s lack of investment in infrastructure has allowed these buildings to crumble, and hard-working and elderly New Yorkers are the ones feeling the brunt of it.

At Community Voices Heard, we fought for months against the prospect of NYCHA housing being taken over by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, because we had seen just how bad things can get when HUD has taken over public-housing authorities in other cities.

On Jan. 31, Mayor Bill de Blasio and HUD Secretary Ben Carson announced that they’d agreed that a federal monitor would be appointed to oversee NYCHA, to be chosen by HUD and the federal Southern District of New York courts in consultation with the mayor and NYCHA. While the fact that there won’t be the full HUD takeover we feared is a victory for NYCHA residents, tenants should still be wary, due to the history of the department’s past dealings with local public-housing authorities.

Our first concern is that we don’t know who the monitor is going to be. The names that have been thrown out or rumored as possibilities are worrisome. Residents need someone who has enough government experience to handle the oversight of an authority as large and complicated as NYCHA.

This also means someone who is an expert in affordable-housing finance. The combination of lack of funding with the mismanagement of money is one of the main reasons for the crumbling infrastructure. Residents need someone who understands how the finances behind public housing work.

There is no question that we should continue to organize tenants and give them a voice to speak out about the issues they face. And we should hold our elected officials accountable when they say that they’re working to make conditions in public housing better.

One encouraging part of the agreement is the inclusion of a community advisory committee, made up of stakeholders who are supposed to make suggestions and oversee what the plan for NYCHA develops into.

CVH has advocated this in our stakeholder council proposal — a panel made up of tenants and people with families living in NYCHA, as well as employees, labor, and faith institutions. If anyone should be overseeing what the authority is doing, it should be those for whom the improvements will really make a difference — and who will be affected the most by bad policies or failures.

It is especially important that the federal monitor be someone who is passionate about public housing, and who is able to engage residents, workers, and other stakeholders. It is of utmost importance that this monitor hears out those who have a vested interest in seeing NYCHA not just survive, but thrive.

What we don’t have yet, and what tenants also need, is a clear timeline of planned infrastructure repairs, so that HUD and NYCHA can be held accountable for completing them. There are deadlines in the agreement and standards to be set, but tenants need to know when each phase is supposed to be finished and whether it will be done on time.

Unfortunately, the agreement does not increase federal funding for NYCHA. We already have secured increases in city and state funding through grassroots advocacy and good old-fashioned tenant organizing. Last year, New York had the largest investment by a state and municipal government into public housing in the country. That was long overdue, but certainly a step in the right direction.

There’s a lot of work to be done to make NYCHA the kind of affordable housing that it should be, but there’s no doubt that it can be accomplished with the help and inclusion of the tenants who make up that community

Afua Atta-Mensah is a Met Council board member and executive director of Community Voices Heard. CVH is constantly looking for those affected by these decisions and those who looking to help make a difference for tenants. You can find out more about our work and how to get involved at www. cvhaction.org.