OPINION: More training for managers needed to stem NYCHA’s woes
Within the past few years, the New York City Housing Authority and its housing projects have been plagued by one scandal after another.
Earlier this year, federal prosecutors found that city housing employees lied to investigators about their compliance with lead-paint removal regulations. The city Department of Health reported that 820 children under the age of 6 were found to have elevated levels of lead in their bloodstream between 2012 and 2016 due to exposure to lead-based paint.
Most NYCHA projects were built in the 1950s and ‘60s, when lead-based paint was still commonly used in construction.
Many NYCHA developments are also overrun by vermin. Videos of rats scampering through the kitchen of an apartment in Clermont Village in the Bronx horrified viewers. I live a few blocks from a NYCHA development, and while passing I’ve seen large rat burrows in outdoor landscaping.
Last year, in an effort to combat the rat problem, the city announced an initiative to reduce dirt basement floors with concrete ones in NYCHA buildings, buy new trash compactors that more secure than older ones and more. Still, there’s no guarantee that such effort will be totally successful.
Finally, many projects have a repair backlog of several months. Maintenance and repair costs have ballooned to the extent that NYCHA properties need $25 billion worth of repairs, the Wall Street Journal reported in early 2018.
As recently as the 1990s, writers favorably compared NYCHA projects with housing projects in other parts of the country — especially Chicago’s Cabrini-Green towers, where guns, drugs and poor living conditions were so rampant that Chicago had to demolish them. You don’t hear many such comparisons anymore, as it is clear that these problems are also multiplying in New York.
Early this fall, the city administration and NYCHA came to an agreement through which the city would appoint a monitor to oversee the agency. The agreement would have required the city to contribute at least $1.2 billion into repairs.
However, in November, Federal Judge William H. Pauley II rejected the agreement and strongly suggested that the federal government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development take over the authority instead, The New York Times reported. In his decision, Judge Pauley noted that HUD has been able to successfully reform other housing agencies, such as the Chicago Housing Authority.
There are all sorts of theories about how NYCHA’s projects got to be in such bad shape. I worked at NYCHA’s Edenwald Houses in the Northeast Bronx as a housing assistant (entry-level manager) more than 30 years ago. Even then, elevators were often out of commission, trash littered the lawns and graffiti marred the staircases and hallways.
Still, if a particular maintenance request (or “ticket”) wasn’t corrected within two weeks, that was considered a long time. Today, a wait time of two or three months for repairs is not uncommon.
One reason for the decay may be the inflexibility of the system. When Edenwald was built in the early 1950s, the city allocated a certain number of maintenance men. When I was working there, even though the project was now showing more wear and tear and the need was greater, it still had the exact same number of maintenance men.
I can’t help think of something a friend of mine who’s a construction plumber told me: “A building will largely survive with minimal maintenance for 50 years. After that, you get more problems and the building needs more attention.” Most of the NYCHA buildings are more than 50 years old, not enough maintenance was done and — sure enough — we can read about serious problems there every day.
There’s also much to be said about the social and political history of “the projects,” but that’s a story in itself. The poor conditions of the buildings and the spiraling costs of repairing them are the major problems plaguing NYCHA today.
While the money will certainly come from somewhere, probably the federal government, maintaining the buildings in good condition requires good, trained managers and assistant managers.
When I was a frequent freelancer for a co-op and condo publication, I came across an organization known as the National Apartment Association. The NAA has a “certified apartment manager program” that requires 40 hours of coursework in addition to 12 months of management experience. There are also other organizations, such as the Institute of Real Estate Managers and the New York Association of Real Estate Managers, that offer classes in property management.
In contrast, when I was a housing assistant, I only had to take three weeks of training. (A shout out to the late, tough-talking but supportive and knowledgeable Rocco Micari of Bensonhurst, who taught the class. Earlier, he had held almost every possible position in the Housing Authority.)
I’m not saying that every NYCHA housing assistant, assistant manager and manager be summarily dismissed in favor of certified apartment managers. But I am saying that from this point forward, new management employees be required to take a regimen of similar classes, and that people with training in apartment management be given priority on tests.
Finally, I’d like to remind people that NYCHA does more than administer “the projects” — it administers the country’s largest Section 8 program, which pays part of the rent for low-income tenants in private housing. Approximately 90,000 Section 8 voucher-holders and more than 29,000 landlords participate in the program.
After transferring from Edenwald, I worked on the Section 8 Program’s Brooklyn Team for a year and a half and had a great time. With our NYCHA-provided car, we met all sorts of people, from elderly Italian ladies in North Williamsburg to Hasidic Jews in South Williamsburg, from Caribbean Americans in Flatbush to Russian immigrants in Brighton Beach.
Section 8 is an example of a program that the Housing Authority does well, Sure, there are problems — due to the booming housing market, more landlords are refusing to take part in the program — but earlier this year, NYCHA issued new vouchers for the first time in years. Here’s to the dedicated men and women of the Section 8 offices and the job they do every day.
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