Throughout his campaign for mayor, Bill de Blasio made rehabilitation of the New York City Housing Authority a top priority. The agency can trace its beginnings back to the “Can Do” era of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, when the city took great pride in its public housing. But in the decades since, divestment by federal, state and city governments has taken its toll. While many jurisdictions took the cue from Uncle Sam and simply blew their projects up, New York City’s public housing has held on, but in an increasingly decrepit state. Basic repairs go unmade for decades, resulting in leaky roofs, dark corridors and broken elevators, and the worst cases can give off a general feeling of stepping into a third world slum.
De Blasio’s résumé would indicate that he’s got what it takes to preside over a renaissance at NYCHA. As public advocate, he tracked and publicly shamed building-code scofflaws with his annual New York City’s Worst Landlord Watchlist, and he served as tri-state regional director for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development when Gov. Andrew Cuomo was HUD secretary.
But a year into de Blasio’s tenure as mayor, public housing advocates are still holding their breath to see if he and NYCHA Chair and CEO Shola Olatoye can actually deliver on a turnaround, at a time when an increasingly conservative Congress is likely to cut back on already reduced levels of federal support and money from Albany is no sure thing.
NYCHA boosters were heartened to see that the mayor, in his proposed budget for next year, kept his commitment to end the practice of charging NYCHA $70 million annually to defray the costs for police protection. But the same activists were struck by the fact that de Blasio made no mention of the housing authority or its challenges in his State of the City address, even as he made preserving and expanding affordable housing the speech’s centerpiece.
Which is not to say the administration hasn’t been making moves with respect to NYCHA: de Blasio recently signed off on a controversial deal to sell a 50 percent stake in a half dozen of the authority’s Section 8 properties—nearly 900 apartments—to private developers. The agency will receive hundreds of millions of dollars from the developers, who will also pour another $100 hundred million into renovations at the properties. Once renovations are complete, the developers will be entitled to receive the difference between the rent residents pay and the market rate from the federal government. In 30 years, the apartments could legally be converted to market rate, although NYCHA retains the right to make that decision.
The deal involves just a fraction of NYCHA’s holdings, which include over 300 projects. For a sense of scale, consider that between its public housing and Section 8 inventory, NYCHA  provides housing for 615,000 people. If it were ranked as its own municipality, it would be the nation’s 27th largest city.
Under the deal that closed in December, BFC Partners and L&M Development Partners have to handle a massive backlog of repairs at the six sites as well as put in $100 million dollars in renovations. The day-to-day management of the four sites in Manhattan and the one each in the Bronx and Brooklyn are handled by L&M’s managment company, C&C Management. The NYCHA workers who had been handling that job have been tranfered to other NYCHA properties.
But while the agreement will net the cash-starved agency much-needed funds, some see it as a harbinger of the privatization of public housing, and elected officials and activists say the deal sets a worrisome precedent, since it was done before they even knew it was on the table.
“First, it is an issue of transparency,” Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said. “The request for proposals was issued under Bloomberg and continued under de Blasio, and nobody really knows the process.”
Brewer is also concerned about what happens at the end of the 30-year term of the deal. “I have been around a long time, and 30 years goes by like this,” she said, snapping her fingers.
Sondra Youdelman, executive director of Community Voices Heard, a NYCHA tenant advocacy organization, said her group is keeping an open mind about NYCHA pursuing “new and innovative partnerships” but is “concerned about details that move us towards privatization of a vital public good.”
In an exclusive interview with City & State, the mayor tried to assuage any fears about the future of New York City’s public housing stock and to explain the rationale behind the deal.
“On the question of these particular Section 8 units I believe fundamentally in what we did here because this is a very narrow slice of the properties associated with NYCHA,” de Blasio said. “It is not public housing in the traditional sense. I really want to emphasize this. I want to say our policy is quite clear. Public housing, traditional public housing, is sacrosanct. It cannot be privatized. It must be there for the public good for the long term.”
“Here we had a case where previously private property came into NYCHA’s possession in the 1970s because they were bankrupt and this was a way of preserving what were affordable units under NYCHA’s aegis but not in the sense of them being public housing,” de Blasio continued. “They are not public housing. They are based on the Section 8 subsidy program.”
De Blasio says his administration has been working closely with NYCHA and was well aware of the agreement before it had been formally signed and sealed by all the parties.
“There is a very active connection between City Hall and NYCHA,” he said. “In fact, the critique of the past has been that many mayors kept their distance from NYCHA. They hid behind some of the structural dynamics even though everyone in the world knows that the mayor and City Hall ultimately have a responsibility for what happens there on so many issues.”
The mayor is leaving the door open for a further reconfiguring of NYCHA holdings with the aim of preserving its housing units while also making room for improvements and insuring NYCHA’s long-term economic viability.
“In terms of any potential future development—and we have said this very consistently—the only things we will consider are with community members, with residents of developments, in terms of what will better their lives,” de Blasio said. “If we say, ‘Here is some underutilized land—what can we do with that land that will better the lives of community residents in terms of job creation, in terms of throwing off resources that can then improve their development?’ There are a lot of models that could be employed.”
“The chair of the Housing Authority, Shola Olatoye, has very much been charged from the beginning with the notion of rebuilding the relationship between the Housing Authority and its tenants, which I think had really become frayed over the years,” he said. “But that is not going to be something we do until we feel we have really redeveloped the relationship with tenants and come up with a vision that is community-friendly, and that is not something we have yet.”
As for failing to mention the housing authority in his State of the City address, the mayor said he wanted to keep a tight focus on what he concedes is a very ambitious housing plan.
“To me it was important to focus that speech overwhelmingly on the 200,000 units of affordable housing we are going to build or preserve,” de Blasio said. “It is a huge endeavor, an unprecedented endeavor. It is going to take so much work, community by community, to make it happen. I really wanted to offer my view to the people of the city of why we have to do this, how we are going to make it work, and how we are going to protect affordability, including for existing residents.”
The Daily News has reported that executives with the two developers that were selected for the Section 8 deal were contributors to the de Blasio campaign. De Blasio maintains there is no connection.
Alicia Glen, deputy mayor for housing and economic development, told City & State that a plan for NYCHA’s revival is not expected until the end of April or the beginning of May. That plan will be a big deal. The fate of the city and the mayor’s legacy really hinge on how de Blasio goes about dealing with NYCHA. It’s not just about housing but so much more.
NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were assassinated while they were parked at NYCHA’s Tompkins Houses in Brooklyn as part of a push to bring security to the violence prone projects. Akai Gurley, a young father with his entire life ahead of him, was accidentally shot by a police officer on patrol in the darkened stairwell of the Pink Houses, also a NYCHA project in Brooklyn.
For even as violent crime decreased citywide, gang violence around NYCHA complexes keeps senior citizens behind locked doors and the vast majority of the working people that call the projects home glancing over their shoulders in fear.
In visits this reporter made to NYCHA projects in all five boroughs over a year, the tenant complaints were the same.
The mayor concedes that the cards are stacked against the city finding the resources NYCHA needs from Washington, but he thinks that with the continued growth in income inequality, the country’s political winds may be changing.
“On the Washington front I haven’t given up,” de Blasio said. “The Washington I hope we can create will take years—it is one where there is an actual urban agenda that is being respected. I think a lot of the politics of the country are shifting. I think the debate over income inequality, which is really growing at this point, is an example of that. I am not going to be surprised at all if the 2016 election isn’t a transcendent change year where we can get things like affordable housing and federal investment on the agenda.”

Listen to Bob Hennelly's one-on-one interview with Mayor Bill de Blasio here: