From housing to headquarters: Reflections on the state of public housing in NYC

Guest writer:  William White, Civic Fellow.

A lifelong resident of Throggs Neck Housing, a development where problems are met with a plethora of excuses rather than a remedy, I doubted the NYC Housing Authority’s ability or even desire to improve living conditions. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I met the members of the executive staff: I sensed a true compassion and an earnest desire to improve the standard of living for NYCHA residents through the NextGen plan.

This opportunity came when Civic Consulting offered me a fellowship in a project intended to improve NYCHA — and it was quite easy to accept the opportunity! As a political science major I generally have a strong interest in government. As a lifelong resident of public housing, I have a specific interest in the New York City Housing Authority.

The positive culture which I experienced at the NYCHA headquarters reflects the dedication of the Chair Shola Olatoye. I was encouraged when Shola shared that some of her fondest childhood memories were of visiting her grandmother who lived in public housing. Her personal story made it evident that she did not perceive NYCHA as simply a place to store the impoverished, but rather as a place that thousands of New Yorkers call home and raise their families. The Chair also shared several initiatives that NYCHA had undertaken during her tenure, and she candidly assessed their levels of success.

My interaction with the Chair left me with the impression that NYCHA is indeed heading towards desperately needed improvements.

However, it is clear that the Chair’s desire to preserve NYCHA’s infrastructure has not yet reached all of the developments. Indeed, as I type this, I must continually stop to dust away fallen plaster which accumulates on my desk like freshly fallen snow – the ceiling has been in disrepair for nearly five years.

It was during this fellowship that I realized that individual developments have a considerable amount of autonomy in terms of maintenance and repairs. I suspect this may be at the heart of what many believe is a lack of accountability on the part of many developments. And this goes to show that, even after living at Throggs Neck my whole life, I didn’t know how certain parts work.

Undoubtedly, the most exciting and indeed the most enlightening part of my fellowship arose from the two focus groups I led at Brownsville Housing.

The first group consisted exclusively of tenants. Much of what I heard during that conversation was not unlike what I hear from my own neighbors. The residents were primarily concerned with slow repairs, sanitary conditions, and safety. The second group was comprised of NYCHA employees, almost exclusively maintenance workers and groundskeepers.

The employees voiced similar concerns as the tenants. Predictably, both sides had something of a biased slant in their evaluations of the problems, pointing fingers, yet they both expressed a willingness to be more proactive in working towards the promise of NextGen. This was very encouraging.

It would be incredibly productive to have a discussion between the participants of the two groups. This would allow both sides to have an open, honest and constructive dialogue with one another, in which the sides could discuss the best way to meet the goals of NextGen NYCHA together. Moreover, we would be able to assess more accurately where the greatest disagreements lay. Ultimately this could strengthen the relationship between staff and residents.

One of the most salient aspects of the fellowship was the opportunity to see the dynamics and quite frankly the virtues of a public-private partnership. I saw this most prominently during the board meetings held by Civic Consulting. It was interesting to watch a number of highly accomplished experts from diverse professional backgrounds pondered the issues facing NYCHA and offer advice and potential solutions that may be outside of the conventional wisdom of a government agency. I enjoyed learning about the ways in which government can incorporate tools developed by private forces to trigger organizational changes which ultimately help the government agency and its beneficiaries.

What I appreciate most about this type of public-private relationship, particularly as fostered by Civic Consulting, is that it is more concerned with genuine government improvement, rather than the profit motive.

Unlocking the potential: A case study of affordable housing and cross-sector partnership

Nearly one in fourteen New Yorkers live in apartments managed or subsidized by the New York City Housing Authority.

But with disinvestment from all levels of government, NYCHA has been unable to keep homes in good shape and to connect residents to community resources and economic opportunities.

“Aggressive action is necessary to deliver to NYCHA’s residents the resources and services they have long deserved, and to sustain the Authority for the long term,” according to NYCHA Chair Shola Olatoye. Therefore, NYCHA developed a long-term plan to change fundamentally how they operate in order to create safe, clean, connected communities.

In the midst of planning, the non-partisan nonprofit Civic Consulting offered pro bono assistance. And the first area of collaboration has been to develop a ground-floor leasing strategy.

courtesy LEVENBETTS 2015

With 328 developments around the city, NYCHA has tremendous space on the ground floor, in fact, 2.5 million square feet that’s non-residential. Roughly a tenth is zoned commercial, and those storefronts enjoy very low vacancy. The other spaces are often under-utilized or off line altogether: former laundry rooms, management offices, community centers, storage, and more.

As NYCHA leadership – including the Chair and the Vice President of Real Estate Services – discussed these assets with Civic Consulting, it became clear that NYCHA alone did not have the resources to repair and reprogram these spaces. New partnerships would be needed.

The question is, who has both the interest and the resources to unlock the potential of these spaces?

Read the case study (PDF).