Crown Heights

NYCHA Meltdown: Angry tenants swamp pols with complaints at Crown Heights town hall

November 4, 2016 By James Harney Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, at microphone, addresses the NYCHA Town Hall at UnCommon High School in Crown Heights. At the table on the dais were, from left, Deputy Brooklyn Borough President Diana Reyna, NYCHA Chair and CEO Shola Olatoye, City Councilmember Ritchie Torres, and NYCHA executives Luis Ponce, Gerald Nelson and Sideya Sherman Photo by Stefan Ringel/Brooklyn Borough President's Office
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Call it a tale of two town halls.

What was supposed to an informational question-and-answer session turned ugly Thursday night when frustrated NYCHA housing tenants besieged a team of local politicians with angry complaints about the horrors of life in Brooklyn’s public housing projects.

In an effort to take the pulse of tenants across the borough, as well as to inform them about NYCHA’s NextGeneration and Rent Assistance Demonstration (RAD) programs, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams convened some 300 tenants and activists in the auditorium of UnCommon High School in Crown Heights. 

To give NYCHA’s presentation and to field tenants’ written questions, Adams’ guests included his Deputy Borough President Diana Reyna, City Councilmember Ritchie Torres, who chairs the council’s Committee on Public Housing, and NYCHA Chair and CEO Shola Olatoye.

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In his welcoming remarks, Adams cited his own recent personal victory against Type 2 diabetes and vowed “to be the symbol of health in this borough.” 

“And you can’t be healthy if you don’t have a living environment that’s healthy. We must make sure that NYCHA is a place where the environment is healthy for you to provide for [your families]. You deserve to be in an environment that’s healthy. 

“[Turning around NYCHA] is a major undertaking, and talk is not enough, we know that,” Adams conceded. “So many people automatically look at the current leadership, particularly Shola, and say, ‘Why isn’t it happening fast enough?’ This ocean liner that was going in the wrong direction is not going to turn around on a dime. 

“For so many years, we’ve never had people who have had a vision of what we could do with NYCHA. How we can make sure that elevators operate and that our walls are clean and that our elevators are not filled with the stench of urine,” he said. 

“[Olatoye] understands that you deserve quality in housing. We’re in a real fight for housing in Brooklyn. We need someone who’s committed and dedicated. We should give this sister a chance.”

After Reyna arrived at the town hall and Adams left, the crowd grew increasingly impatient as Torres conceded that many NYCHA tenants have been waiting “weeks and months” to have their apartments painted and plastered, and as he told them that they “have every right to be angry, because since 2001 the federal government has drained NYCHA of $1 billion.”

In her remarks, Olatoye attempted to assure the crowd that NYCHA was committed to repairing and repainting “every building and every apartment,” in its massive system, and did not plan to displace any tenant despite plans to “make money” by putting vacant or underutilized NYCHA properties on the commercial real estate market. 

But frustrations in the audience boiled over after Olatoye said that the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) mandates that NYCHA set rents at 30 percent of a family’s annual income.

“I got a $200 raise in rent, and my salary didn’t change!” shouted Elizabeth Scott, who has lived in a two-bedroom apartment in the Boulevard Houses in East New York for 20 years. “When I asked how they came up with that increase, I was told; ‘HUD did it.’” 

Cheryl Wright, a tenant in the Albany Houses in Crown Heights for 15 years, angrily charged that “NYCHA is looking to kick us out; men are coming knocking on our doors, offering to buy our leases! We live here, we see it happening.”

“I live on the first floor, with garbage and rats,” complained Patricia Simmons, who has lived in the Glenwood Houses in Flatlands for 38 years. “My son had to come up from Virginia to help me get my walls cleaned.”

The town hall quickly dissolved into a shouting match, as tenant after tenant ignored Reyna and Olatoye’s attempts to answer tenants’ questions that had been written and submitted in advance, bombarding them down with furious individual complaints of lack of heat or hot water, long waits for repairs, vermin infestations, squalid living conditions, rent increases they perceived to be unfair and fears that they will be forced out by privatization.  

The moderators ultimately restored order by directing individual tenants to give their problems to NYCHA officials on hand to follow up on. A public address announcement that the building was closing in 15 minutes effectively ended the tumultuous session.

Despite the outcome, Olatoye told the Brooklyn Eagle she felt the town hall was productive, adding: “These people are passionate about what’s wrong with their living conditions; now, it’s up to me to do something to fix it.”


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