Testimony of Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou regarding the New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA) Draft Agency Plan for Fiscal Year 2019

Thank you for the opportunity to submit comments regarding the New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA) Draft Agency Plan for FY 2019.

I am Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, and I represent the 65th Assembly District, which covers the lower Manhattan neighborhoods consisting of the Lower East Side, Chinatown, Battery Park City, South Street Seaport, the Two Bridges Neighborhood, and the Financial District.

I represent a total of eleven NYCHA developments: 45 Allen Street, 175 Eldridge Street, Hernandez Houses, LaGuardia Houses, Lower East Side I, Meltzer Tower, Rutgers Houses, Seward Park Extension, Smith Houses, Two Bridges, and Vladeck Houses.

NYCHA is New York City’s last source of deeply affordable housing. Over 590,000 New Yorkers rely on NYCHA’s public housing and Section 8 programs, and yet, the federal government’s chronic divestment from public housing programs continues. These federal cuts will impair NYCHA’s ability to make capital improvements, hurt NYCHA’s day-to-day operations, and allow for the further deterioration of our city’s affordable housing.

Over the past year, NYCHA residents have experienced several crises that have negatively impacted them in some way including failing boilers during the coldest winter months and botched lead-based paint inspections. With the recent changes to NYCHA’s top leadership, it is critical that its Draft Agency Plan for FY 2019 clearly lay out plans to resolve the urgent and troubling realities faced by NYCHA tenants. As we move forward, I remain committed to ensuring that NYCHA’s plan moving forward prioritizes the preservation of our affordable housing stock.

I. New York State FY 2018-2019 NYCHA Investment & Design-Build Legislation

Securing funding for public housing repairs was one of my highest priorities during this year’s budget season. This year’s budget includes $250 million investment to address NYCHA’s repair backlog. Although this is not enough, it is a historic accomplishment for tenants. Furthermore, the budget includes design-build legislation which will allow for faster completion of NYCHA capital projects including outdated heating systems, leaky roofs, and other outdated infrastructure.

NYCHA faces unmet capital needs of nearly $17 billion, and if steps are not taken to address its deteriorating infrastructure, the situation will only worsen. This past winter, NYCHA residents experienced firsthand the consequences of neglected repairs when boiler outages across the city left thousands of tenants without heat and hot water. In January, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, called attention to the persistent boiler issues leading to heat and hot water outages at NYCHA developments. Comptroller Stringer indicated that NYCHA buildings have a 40% chance of having a defective boiler compared to 7% for non-NYCHA buildings.

In January, Mayor de Blasio announced a $200 million investment to replace heating systems at 20 NYCHA developments. However, it is possible that these repairs will take two years to complete, meaning NYCHA tenants could face another winter with recurrent heat and hot water outages. With the state’s $250 million investment and design-build legislation, it is critical that there are no unnecessary delays to capital repairs. NYCHA families deserve to have reliable heat and hot water service in the fall and winter, a basic requirement for apartments across New York City, and moving forward, it is imperative that steps are taken to complete as many repairs as possible.

II. Resiliency & Recovery

When Superstorm Sandy occurred in 2012, many of the NYCHA developments in my district were directly impacted. Although federal dollars were secured, resiliency remains a top priority in lower Manhattan. The negative effects of Superstorm Sandy only served to highlight the disrepair in my district’s NYCHA developments, many of which were already experiencing problems due to age and neglect.

I am pleased with some of NYCHA’s Sandy recovery efforts; however, there is room for improvement. Earlier this year, my office heard from resident leaders at Smith Houses and Two Bridges that there was concern regarding communication and lack of engagement with tenants and during repairs. Construction disrupts the quality of life for residents, and therefore, I urge NYCHA to place a greater emphasis on communicating with tenants during construction.

Moreover, it has come to my attention that NYCHA does not currently include an arborist to oversee the protection of trees within NYCHA properties while construction takes place. Specifically, resiliency projects at Smith Houses have been underway for months now without an adequate plan in place to protect the trees. I share tenants’ concerns about the future of the trees given that some of them may have been damaged due to construction. I ask that NYCHA take a more aggressive approach to safeguard Smith’s trees and explore the possibility of employing an arborist.

III. NYCHA Next Generation & Infill

In 2017, NYCHA announced plans for a mixed market-rate, affordable housing development at LaGuardia Houses, in my district. Through its NextGen program, NYCHA is expected to build a 35-story tower on Madison and Rutgers Streets on the Lower East Side.

After hearing from LaGuardia tenants, community housing advocates, and Lower East Side residents, I am increasingly convinced that LaGuardia Infill will have unintended consequences on the overall livelihood of our community, and therefore, I oppose NYCHA’s plans for development at this site. While I understand that NYCHA is in dire need of funding, this should not come at the expense of existing residents. Thus far, residents have expressed feeling disengaged from the decision making process. While NYCHA has held community visioning sessions, tenants have stated that these meetings are not fully transparent, conducive to open and fair dialogue, and not advertised to residents in the surrounding neighborhood. In the past, I have discussed the need for improved communication between NYCHA and its tenants. Once again, I urge NYCHA to improve this line of communication in the months and years ahead.

In addition, NYCHA must be clear that this is a proposal to privatize public land for the duration of the 99 year lease. I am against privatizing public land, but in the event that NYCHA does go forward with this project to build a new building at LaGuardia Houses regardless of my approval, these are the demands that I believe must be met. First, anything built must be 100 percent permanently affordable. Second, provided that there is already a proposed retail space, NYCHA should seriously consider adding an affordable grocery store in that space. While NYCHA has cited some zoning limitations preventing a grocery store from being built in that space, I believe that suggestion warrants further discussion. Lastly, revenue generated from this project at LaGuardia Houses should go back to LaGuardia first; the remaining funds should then be distributed among neighboring NYCHA developments on the Lower East Side. This is in lieu of the funding being split fifty-fifty between LaGuardia Houses and the general NYCHA pot.

IV. Lead Paint

According to a New York City Department of Investigation report, since 2013, NYCHA has been failing to comply with HUD requirements for lead paint safety inspections. The rules set forth by HUD and New York City Local Law 1 are in place to keep our families safe, as lead exposure can lead to long term health implications, especially for pregnant women and young children. While this issue has garnered media attention, and some steps are being taken to address this major misstep including a court order for NYCHA to conduct new lead paint inspections at its developments, the Annual Plan does not include NYCHA’s plans to come into compliance with federal regulations. This lack of transparency is concerning, and I urge NYCHA to engage with and communicate to its tenants how it plans to rectify its inaction in lead paint safety inspections.

V. RAD Conversions

Earlier this month, we learned of NYCHA’s plans for applying to HUD to convert 63 of their developments to RAD. Three of these developments are in my district: Meltzer, LES 1 Infill, and LaGuardia Addition. NYCHA expects this application process to last a few months, and these buildings will not be fully converted to RAD until approximately 2026, should these applications be approved. It is our understanding that, at that time, private management would take over the daily maintenance of the building, and tenants would continue paying 30% of their income for rent. Moreover, NYCHA would keep ownership of the properties.

At this time, we have not had the opportunity fully learn how this process will affect the residents of the aforementioned developments as well as the surrounding neighborhood. However, as this process moves forward, it is imperative that NYCHA continue an open dialogue with residents. Furthermore, elected officials must remain informed and engaged so that we are able to work together with our tenants to figure out what is best for them.

VI. Closing

Facing threats to federal housing programs, it is absolutely critical that we focus on protecting public housing residents and work with NYCHA to find a way to achieve them. Thank you for the opportunity to testify, and I look forward to ensuring the safety and quality of life of public housing residents.