Tenant leaders talk tactics in the Big Easy

The basketball court at Moore Houses has been without a rim and backboard since late September.

Public housing activists eager to get more residents involved

Tenants of public housing complexes in Mott Haven and Melrose have no shortage of complaints, and now some are taking it upon themselves to fix the problems.

Twenty-six tenant leaders from city Housing Authority complexes in the South Bronx flew to New Orleans in late September to attend a conference to learn how to strengthen their activism. 

“We need to train the residents to fight for themselves,” said Daniel Barber, 43, president of the Jackson Houses Resident Association on Courtlandt Avenue.

“If we know ahead of time, we know what to fight for,” said Barber, after attending the annual conference for the first time.

The conference, established by the non-profit National Alliance of Resident Services in Assisted and Affordable Housing a decade ago, provides tenant leaders from around the country a rare opportunity to learn how federal housing policies work, and teaches them alternate ways of negotiating with unresponsive city housing administrations. Some 500 attended this year’s conference.

“We go to learn things NYCHA doesn’t tell us,” said Patricia Lamonda, president of Bronxchester Houses in Melrose. Workshops at the conference range from job training for tenants to creating partnerships with churches.

For Lamonda, 51, learning about her own building’s administrative quirks is a priority. Bronxchester Houses is certified to accept tenants who receive Section 8, a federal assistance program. But that very qualification makes the E. 156th St. complex ineligible for the modest amount of city money tenants from other buildings can access, such as the stipend other leaders received for the trip to New Orleans, she said.

The Housing Authority, which has received requests to provide $8 million to fund tenant activities over the last three years, declined to comment on its spending decisions over that period.

Lamonda is one of about 25 organizers who received a scholarship to attend this year’s conference. At a recent meeting of tenant organizers from South Bronx public housing complexes, Lamonda’s colleagues collected $130, about half the cost of her airfare, by passing a hat around.

Samuel Little, president and CEO of the national non-profit that launched and still organizes the annual event, said it was created to fill a need for professional development of staff and residents of public housing facilities. But while both tenants and staff of public housing attend the conference, Little said the effect on tenants is the most profound.

“For every conference, it’s the first time someone has stayed in a hotel, or attended a workshop,” he said. “It’s like a wave of electricity after a blackout.”

One attendee wished more tenants could attend.

“I wish they’d saved some seats on that bus, because there are residents that would go,” said Cheryl Cross, 40, who lives in the Moore Houses on 149th St.

Cross concedes it’s not easy for her neighbors to afford the trip. She rattled off a list of needed improvements in her building: security cameras, working elevators, new basketball hoops. A rim and backboard on the basketball court were removed a week ago, leaving residents clamoring for replacements.

Other residents who were unaware of the conference, bristled at the idea they and their neighbors aren’t involved in their homes. Many of them cited poor maintenance and unresponsive management as top concerns. NYCHA has a backlog of 338,000 repair orders, many of which won’t be completed until 2014.

Maya Escalera, 26, a resident of Mott Haven Houses, doubted the conference would be helpful.

“They can have all the meetings they want, but at the end of the day, they need dollars,” she said.

“NYCHA can do a whole lot better,” Barber agreed. But he believes lack of tenant input is the biggest problem — one he hopes to remedy with ideas he formed at the conference. Attendance at monthly tenant meetings has dwindled from 175 when Barber first became president of the Jackson Houses Resident Association in 2003, to about a dozen.

“If you get 20 people to a meeting, that’s a lot,” he said Barber. “But I have 868 units!”

“The jobs are there, the information is there. But not the people,” he said.