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As NYCHA braces for federal monitor, residents and advocates question the deal

“If the federal government, the state really want to help, they need to put the money where their mouth is”

The Henry Rutgers Houses in the Lower East Side
Getty Images/Drew Angerer

A stream of concerned texts and calls poured into Afua Atta-Mensah’s phone Wednesday night when news emerged—in an ominous tweet from a Department of Housing and Urban Development administrator—that the city’s public housing was in for a major shake up.

Now, a day after the announcement that the federal government is imposing more control over the beleaguered New York City Housing Authority by appointing a federal monitor, Atta-Mensah—the director of Community Voices Heard—and the many NYCHA tenants who are among the group’s members remain apprehensive about what that means for the authority’s 400,000 residents.

“There’s different schools of thought that [HUD] wants someone who is more of a bean counter who’s going to watch the money,” says Atta-Mensah. “We want someone with actual experience of running an agency and understanding that NYCHA’s not widgets—it’s human beings.”

Under the new plan, HUD and prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office will appoint a monitor (with input from the city) to address longstanding issues at NYCHA’s 2,417 buildings, including busted heating systems, elevators, mold, vermin, and lead paint. They will ultimately develop a plan to improve the authority, according to HUD secretary Ben Carson, who outlined the deal with Mayor Bill de Blasio at a press conference Thursday.

The city avoided receivership, or a federal takeover of NYCHA, but questions remain over who this monitor will be—HUD won’t share a list of candidates—and how they will approach retooling the embattled city agency, as well as whether they’ll truly have the experience necessary to aid meaningful change at the authority.

“One of our concerns is that the arrangement is all very dependent on what person they select to be their federal monitor,” says Victor Bach, a senior housing analyst with Community Service Society, who believes a monitor could bode well for NYCHA if the right person takes on the task. “Will they be effective? That’s an immediate concern.”

A longtime tenant of the Brevoort Houses in Bedford-Stuyvesant—where residents went weeks without water during last year’s sweltering summer—says it’s crucial that whoever picks up the mantle as monitor engages with residents and community groups who are intimately aquatinted with the authority and its foibles.

“They can’t leave us scrambling to react to their every move,” says Audrey Brown, 56, who had to fill up buckets of water at a fire hydrant during the drought. “Whoever is chosen—and our community should be involved with that process—needs to be someone who will actually listen and not just steamroll in like they own the place.”

The monitor will submit quarterly reports to federal officials detailing NYCHA’s progress in addressing its myriad issues. If the city doesn’t meet those goals—such as eliminating lead paint hazards in 5,700 apartments over the next month—the monitor could shift staff and resources at the agency, according to the 52-page agreement.

But the federal government isn’t kicking in any additional cash to help the city meet the deal’s deadlines. Instead, the city will be on the hook to spend at least $2.2 billion over 10 years as part of the arrangement.

“I was very disappointed that HUD didn’t add any more capital to the new partnership. The funding they provide, we all know, is inadequate to address NYCHA’s needs,” says Bach.

On top of that, Gov. Andrew Cuomo still had not committed to releasing $450 million in funds allocated for NYCHA in recent years. The situation adds “insult to injury” that the city will foot the entire bill for the monitor’s budget, says Atta-Mensah.

“Frankly, it’s another check that has to be cut,” she notes. “If this person doesn’t have the experience or commitment to seeing NYCHA work—this is something NYCHA is paying for as opposed to paying for a new boiler or a new roof, or getting rid of mold.”

The deal gives the agency until 2024 to ensure no more than 15 percent of its apartments see temperatures drop below legal limits in the winter. NYCHA will also have to repair or replace some 500 boilers by the end of 2026, and create a plan by October 1 to detail how it will handle heating outages at individual developments.

Under the deal, officials must inspect every apartment housing a child younger than six and eliminate any led paint hazards in a month’s time. The authority also has a 20 year deadline of abating all lead-based paint in complexes across the city. Other benchmarks for addressing mold, elevator breakdowns, and pest infestations are included.

Still, another tenant, who has called the LaGuardia Houses in the Lower East Side home her entire life, has her doubts.

“It sounds like a tall order to me,” says Jerrica Samuels, 28. “[Does HUD] think adding more pressure will make them act? They’ve been under the gun to get this done for years. If the federal government, the state really want to help, they need to put the money where their mouth is.”