Our Town Walkout During Housing Meeting by DANIEL FITZSIMMONS
NYCHA’s plan to generate revenue for budget deficit causes backlash on Upper East Side
Over 100 angry public housing residents on the Upper East Side walked out of a meeting with NYCHA officials Wednesday in protest of a new plan to address the agency’s massive operating deficit by selling or leasing to private developers public land on which will be built a mixture of affordable and market rate housing.
The program, called NextGen NYCHA, is being billed by the agency as a 10-year strategic plan to address the their chronic operating deficit and $17 billion in unmet capital needs.
At Holmes, that means partnering with a private developer to build 350-400 apartments on playground space between the two towers, 175-200 of which will be affordable. The remainder of the apartments will be offered at market rate.
After the announcement last month - which shocked public housing residents and elected officials, who said they had no advance warning or input on the plan – NYCHA released a statement to Our Town that said the program provides both needed affordable units and revenue generating market rate units.
The agency predicts the program will generate $300 million to $600 million over the next 10 years, revenue that will be split between existing infrastructure needs at NextGen sites like Holmes and NYCHA’s larger capital needs.
The agency announced a similar program at Wyckoff Gardens in Brooklyn last month.
As part of an outreach effort to its tenants after announcing the proposal, NYCHA called a meeting Wednesday to explain aspects of the plan and answer any questions. Agency officials said they want to form different committees made up of residents at each NextGen site who will decide how their share of the program’s money will be spent.
But many residents feel the agency is making a disingenuous attempt to include them after key decisions regarding development at Holmes Towers have already been made.
Ten minutes after the meeting began, a Holmes resident named Sandrea Coleman asked how NYCHA planned to increase residents’ quality of life by adding more buildings and more residents to an already overcrowded development, while simultaneously taking away their only open space.
NYCHA’s Senior Director for Real Estate Development Nicole Ferreira thanked Coleman for her question but did not answer it, prompting outbursts from a half-dozen Holmes residents and, eventually, a walkout.
“They dehumanized me when they came and spoke to me, like I was nothing and to be quiet,” said Coleman in an interview during the walkout.
NYCHA officials distributed cards at the beginning of the meeting for residents to write their questions on, but many felt that format was an effort by the agency to control dissent.
“Cards is not my voice, I am a grown woman and a resident,” said Coleman. “I’ve become an activist because of this.”
Residents gathered at a nearby Holmes Towers playground between 93rd Street and 92nd Street, which appears to be the most likely site for development, and held a rally. Members of Community Voices Heard, a citywide coalition of NYCHA residents that advocates for low-income tenants, said the walkout was prearranged and would occur if Holmes residents felt slighted by NYCHA officials.
“These are false pretense meetings where [NYCHA] asks for our input but really the decisions are all decided as far as we’re concerned,” said Javier Sepulveda, an organizer with Community Voices Heard who lives in the Clinton Houses. “We believe this whole process is a façade and we should have a moratorium [on NextGen NYCHA] to allow tenants to become better educated on the processes involved and that no land should be surrendered. The city just seems to be moving too quickly without true participation of the residents. “It’s a front, they already have their NextGeneration plans laid out.”
Holmes resident Coleman Brown, who identified himself as a “floor captain” for Community Voices Heard, led the crowd in a call and response session.
“As you can see, Holmes Towers is united against private development on NYCHA land. This development would take away our land, light and playground,” Brown shouted into a megaphone, as the crowd repeated each line. “This is not affordable housing, it’s gentrification and privatization.”
Community Voices Heard called on Mayor Bill de Blasio to increase funding for NYCHA out of the city budget and to cease private development on NYCHA land. Councilmember Ben Kallos offered words of support and vowed to stand with Holmes residents.
Brown, in a later interview, said despite NYCHA’s assurances that the plan would ultimately benefit Holmes Towers residents, there’s virtually no upside for him and his neighbors. The plan will mean years of construction and more people in less space, all in exchange for repairs that NYCHA is obligated to make anyway.
“My son plays in this park. My window faces this way. And they want to build a building in front of my window? My son loves to look out his window, and now he’s going to look at a building,” said Brown. “Going deeper into it, there’s years and years of mismanagement of money. They do stuff like wash the bricks when they should be fixing peoples’ apartments. Fix the hot water heater, fix the elevators that get stuck. They’re mismanaging money for beautification.”
Brown believes the only reason NYCHA called the meeting with residents was to quell dissent about their plan.
“Now that this is happening they’re going to have to go back to the drawing board,” he said.
Before the walkout, Ferreira and other officials sought to dispel myths that NextGen NYCHA would displace or raise rents on low-income residents, or demolish existing low-income housing. Officials said three sites at Holmes Towers are currently under consideration for development, but did not give specifics on precise locations.
NYCHA officials also said 25 percent of the new affordable units at Holmes Towers would be put aside for existing Holmes residents who want to move into a new apartment. However, in order to qualify for those apartments, prospective tenants would have to make a minimum of 60 percent of the area median income, which is equivalent to a family of three making $46,600 a year. Residents who spoke to Our Town said many Holmes Towers residents wouldn’t even qualify for the affordable apartments.
At the meeting, when asked if NYCHA would commit to tenant approval on any plans going forward, Ferreira said the agency was in the beginning of the community engagement process.
“We’re in the beginning of this process, we’re not committing to anything up front,” she said. “We’re going through this with you.”
NYCHA officials said the agency has seen a decrease in federal funding since 2001. Their position, based on a statement they gave this paper in September, is that their backs are against the wall, and the coffers are empty.
“The future of NYCHA is resting on all of us, even critics, to find the best path forward to generate the funds to keep NYCHA open for business,” said a spokesperson. “NYCHA is facing the worst financial crisis in its history — the Authority does not have the funds to address the infrastructure needs of our buildings, including the buildings at Holmes, which directly impacts the quality of life of our residents.”
NYCHA’s Deputy Chief of Communications Yvette Andino said the community engagement process on NextGen NYCHA is slated to continue through December, though it’s unknown if the agency will change its approach after Wednesday’s walkout. Residents said they plan to march on Gracie Mansion Oct. 20.