Boycott Muddies Housing Authority’s Land-Lease Pitch at Smith Houses

DSC00395Kavitha Surana
DSC00413Kavitha Surana

Chanting “Public housing under attack! What do we do? Fight back!”, members of the Alfred E. Smith Houses’ tenants association urged residents to boycott a meeting in which the New York City Housing Authority pitched its plan to lease land to private developers.

Representatives of the housing authority appeared at P.S. 126 last night to promote its contentious new scheme to raise much-needed capital for building maintenance by leasing out parking lots and playgrounds at eight of its developments, including Smith Houses.

Earlier in the day, housing authority employees had knocked on doors to encourage residents to attend, but members of the tenants association said they felt ambushed by the plan and bewildered by a lack of communication with the housing authority. The tenants group wanted to postpone the meeting until next month, both so that it would have more time to organize and to accommodate members who could not attend on March 20 or might be away for Passover or Easter holidays in the coming weeks. According to Aixa Torres, the group’s president, the housing authority eventually agreed to an April 11 meeting, but it also refused to cancel the March 20 meeting.

“This has become a power play between N.Y.C.H.A. and me. They have said that I am being unreasonable. I don’t think I am,” said Ms. Torres, who organized the boycott last night after the agency refused to change the date. “I think my residents deserve a 10-day notice. Instead they got three days.”

DSC00396Kavitha Surana

Monique Harris, secretary of the tenants association, also hoped for extra time to think of new plans. “This can’t be the only solution,” she said. “I feel like this was the first thing brought to the table. Well, what if there is something else? You have to give us more time to process this, to absorb what you’re telling us, because at the end of the day it not just about our homes; it’s about the quality of our life.”

Ms. Torres complained that she thought the housing authority was not acting in partnership with the tenants association, particularly to ensure that the buildings are not vulnerable to collapse. “At our meeting with them yesterday we asked to review the Request for Proposal and they told us ‘no.’ We are supposed to be a part of the process and we’ve been totally excluded,” she said.

At last night’s meeting, the housing authority’s tone was conciliatory. “All we are doing is issuing a request for a proposal — and let’s be clear, this is a multi-phase process,“ said Lynn Godfrey, the agency’s chief communications officer. “This is just the beginning of many meetings and we are very invested and committed to make sure the residents understand what is going on and to get questions, comments, concerns, and feedback.”

Over 100 people gathered inside to listen to Cecil House and Fred Harris, respectively the agency’s general manager and Executive Vice President for Development, outline the proposal’s benefits and try to dispel rumors (translations in Spanish, Chinese, Russian and Sign Language were available, and the presentation is online).

DSC00418Kavitha Surana

“The parcels have been selected so that no existing N.Y.C.H.A. building is demolished,” explained Mr. Harris. “It won’t displace a single family; it won’t cause a single unit of public housing to not exist. And it will not privatize public housing.”

Under the plan, two sites totaling 74,000 square feet — currently holding 116 parking spaces, a garbage compactor yard, and a paved baseball field and basketball court — would be redeveloped to accommodate over a million square feet of residential floor space.

The housing authority reiterated its commitment to finding or creating equal parking and playground spaces for those displaced by the development, but did not offer clear details. “We don’t want to tell you where we’ll put the new playgrounds and parking,” said Mr. Harris. “We want to come back and work with you.” This was met with grumbling from the audience. “Ok, they ain’t going to have nowhere to park,” muttered one resident who would only identify herself as Annette.

Residents, some of whom pay between $1,200 to $1,500 in rent, described poor conditions and slow repairs in the Smith Houses, such as crumbling walls, elevator outages, dripping ceilings and rat infestations. The housing authority says it expects to be able to fix the backlog of repairs with the sustained capital generated by the leases.

But some, like Ms. Harris, say they would rather put up with the conditions for now and be left in peace, rather than make a hasty step in the wrong direction. “You cannot expect people to accept something that we’re not going to benefit from,” she said. “We’re already ostracized because we live in project housing. Now when you put people in here who are going to have a greater value, basically, than us, all you’re telling us is that we’re no longer valuable. Our worry is that we’re going to be forgotten because we feel like we’ve already been forgotten. We should have the right to say we don’t want it and be left alone.”

In the meantime, the tenants association will meet tonight at 15 St. James Place to discuss its plans for the April 11 meeting.