TESTIMONY OF COUNCIL MEMBER MARK LEVINE REGARDING THE NYCHA DRAFT FY2015 ANNUAL AND FIVE-YEAR PLAN
July 24, 2014
My name is Mark Levine and I represent the 7th City Council district, a diverse community comprised of West Harlem, Morningside Heights, Washington Heights, and part of the Upper West Side. Within my district there are over 12,000 residents living in roughly 5,000 New York City Housing Authority apartments, in developments such as the General Ulysses S. Grant Houses, Manhattanville Rehab and Houses, and Frederick Douglass Houses.
Following the recent raids on Grant and Manhattanville Houses, security is among the greatest concerns of NYCHA residents in my district. I commend NYCHA and the NYPD for its efforts to protect tenants; the 10,000 security surveillance cameras installed over the past 15 years and the increased officers assigned to Police Service Areas will certainly help. But I fear that this is not enough to control the systemic problems that center around organized crime and gang violence. We have to invest in positive experiences through youth programming to prevent young people from being drawn into the cycle of violence. No amount of arrests will keep the next generation from getting caught up in it.
Grant Houses has roughly 4,500 residents, of which about 1,900 are young people, and from 2010 to 2013 they had no access to youth programs. In the past few months we helped get a program for roughly 75 middle and high school students off the ground there. Even so, it does not nearly meet the needs of such a large development. More must be done to rectify the acute shortage of youth services in these developments.
Residents also want more cops on the beat and more community policing. They want officers who get to know the youth, get to know the neighborhood, and can prevent crimes before they escalate. This is sorely absent now, and NYCHA can do more to improve relations between its developments and their corresponding Police Service Area.
The safety of NYCHA residents must be front and center, but we must also ensure that NYCHA continues to prioritize admitting our most vulnerable families to its vacant units. Of major concern, is NYCHA exclusion of homeless families from its waiting list. Over 54,000 New Yorkers, including 23,000 children and 13,000 families frequent the NYC shelter system, yet no homeless families were admitted to NYCHA in the past nine years. NYCHA is proposing to admit only 750 homeless families per year moving forward despite calls from my colleagues and I to raise this to 2,500 -- approximately one third of the annual vacancies. NYCHA currently allocates most vacant apartments to its “working families preference,” an out-dated Giuliani-era policy that admits moderate income households that are able to afford housing outside of NYCHA. A reformulation of the admission process is long overdue. NYCHA must provide more housing for those who most need it: the homeless, victims of domestic violence, those living in substandard housing, and low-income households paying more than 50 percent of their income for rent.
Another of my chief concerns is the projected $77 million operating deficit for the public housing general fund. NYCHA is already underfunded, and its continued operations deficit impacts its dangerously stretched services. Graciously, Mayor de Blasio relieved NYCHA of its annual $70 million “special services” payment to the NYPD for new fiscal year, but the annual obligation needs to be permanently revoked. NYCHA residents already pay for NYPD services through their income taxes--this is a superfluous and unnecessary charge. Given that many entities with a mission for social good, such as organizations with non-profit status, are exempt from paying property taxes, I also recommend that the annual $29 million expense for PILOT payments be revoked. The $2 million annual charge for “special pick-ups” by the Department of Sanitation must be reconsidered as well. With the latter two costs alleviated, half of NYCHA’s operating deficit would be wiped out for this year.
Addressing the operating deficit would ensure a continuous focus on improving the quality of life of NYCHA residents through the ongoing repair and maintenance of NYCHA housing. I commend NYCHA for its progress in reducing service wait time, from 108 to 4 days, and reducing the number of open work orders from 274,000 to 78,000 in just over a year. Given continuing resident complaints, however, I request that the information NYCHA uses to monitor repairs be made publicly available and open to independent confirmation. Similarly, outstanding code violations in NYCHA buildings should also be made public. NYCHA buildings do not receive nearly the same amount of scrutiny from the Department of Buildings as private residents ones, creating unsafe conditions for residents who are often unaware they even exist.
I also recommend that NYCHA give serious consideration to allowing NYCHA residents to register their complaints with 311 rather than having to go through the NYCHA Centralized Complaint Center. This would help NYCHA residents receive better follow up enforcement services from city agencies and enjoy the same responsiveness that all other New Yorkers have come to expect from 311.
Sadly, it is already too late in the process to meaningfully address many of the concerns with the annual plan that my constituents and I hold. For future planning documents, NYCHA must increase transparency. Typically NYCHA holds a public hearing on the Draft Annual Plan in each of the five boroughs prior to the citywide public hearing. Usually the meetings are scheduled for 6:00-8:30 pm. This year, for the first time ever, they were held from 3:00-5:00 pm. According to a 2011 NYC Housing and Vacancy Survey, most NYCHA households had at least one working member, which means this year’s public hearings were inaccessible to a large population of NYCHA residents.
The current public hearing system also needs to be reconsidered. A single three hour public hearing to discuss a 159 page budget plan that affects 180,000 households is grossly inadequate. Three hours, one evening a year, is simply not enough time for the nation’s largest housing authority to obtain public input on a wide range of issues. The current system also lacks rules to determine which residents are allowed to testify and simply allocates three minute windows on a first-come-first-serve basis. In order to avoid redundancy, and allow the maximum number of interests and concerns to be addressed, NYCHA needs a more inclusive testimony system.
My constituents have experienced firsthand the challenges described by the New York City Alliance to Preserve Public Housing, and that is why I generally support the recommendations listed in the Alliance’s NYCHA FY 2013 Draft Annual Plan Position Statement, specifically regarding the NYCHA operating deficit, the admission plan, repairs, and transparency, which I commented on above, and also community redevelopment and Section 8 voucher cuts. The Alliance’s common sense proposals would go a long way toward improving the experience that tenants have with NYCHA.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. I look forward to working with NYCHA to preserve safe and affordable housing for disadvantaged New Yorkers.