New York City Housing Authority tenants say their visit to Albany to lobby for extra money in the state budget was only the start of a push to improve living conditions in the city’s struggling public housing complexes.
“A lot more needs to be done. We need to be hitting the streets and pounding the pavement at the grassroots level,” said Ronald Topping, a community activist and president of the Adams Houses. which borders Mott Haven and Hunts Point.
“We need to let them know that this is not a one day thing or weekday thing,” said Topping. “This is a lifetime thing for us to get the responses that we need to get this ‘mission’ approved and passed.”
The “mission” is to boost the allocation in the state budget for maintenance and repairs in the city’s sprawling public housing network – and to bar the state from privatizing select New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) complexes.
On Feb. 13, an estimated 10 busloads of NYCHA tenants from across the city boarded buses to Albany to make their case. In between meetings with state lawmakers, they rallied inside the Capitol building carrying signs messaging: “Fully Fund Public Housing,” “We Demand $3 Billion for Public Housing Statewide” and “Keep Public Housing Public.”
The rally came after Govenor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed state budget did not include any extra funding for public housing. So NYCHA tenants from across the city, including tenants from the Mott Haven section of the Bronx, boarded onto buses to voice their concern over the lack of funding and the new deals being struck to privatize NYCHA buildings.
NYCHA is the largest public housing agency in the nation, overseeing 325 housing complexes with more than 2,600 apartment buildings. The agency reports that its buildings house almost 400,000 authorized tenants; housing advocates say the actual number could be as high as 600,000 because of families doubling up.
Topping said that the state and federal government needs to be doing a lot more to fund public housing.
“Congress has not funded HUD (Housing and Urban Development) and HUD has not been able to fund public housing,” said Topping. “As a matter of fact, every time the allocation money comes out annually, it seems like it’s been decreased.”
One of the demands made by the tenants is that $3 billion be set aside for public housing in the state budget and that the state also be clear on what exactly the money is being allocated for. A petition for the approval of this extra funding, Topping said, was signed by New York State assembly members Michael Blake and Al Taylor.
However, Topping said that, by most estimates, at least $30 billion would be needed to begin fixing the “decaying infrastructure” of NYCHA buildings.
Brenda Wheeler, a resident of the Adams Houses for nearly seven years, was at the rally and said that any extra funding should go towards fixing the elevators and creating community centers and programs geared towards the youth and the elderly in the communities.
Wheeler also said that she went to the rally to voice her concerns over recent efforts being made to privatize NYCHA.
Recently Mayor Bill de Blasio has been pushing for Rental Assistance Demonstration, a federal government program that turns over public housing to private management. Some residents feel that Rental Assistance Demonstration will result in an increase in rent as well as an increase in evictions due to residents being unable to keep up with their payments.
“I feel that we are being cheated out of something that was given to us,” said Wheeler. “It opened the doors where people can have our place to live. But now they are making deals and want to privatize it. And my question was: ‘Where are the people going to go?’”
Another tenant demand is that the wealthy pay a higher tax to the state. The money collected would be used to help fund public housing and other programs.
“The wealthy class does not pay their fair share of taxes,” said Topping. “It’s always the working class and middle class who pay a higher level of taxes, and the wealthy gets tax breaks where they pay hardly anything. And that’s something that needs to change.”
Shortly after the rally, Cuomo’s office issued a statement saying the governor is proposing an amendment to the budget that would provide employment opportunities for NYCHA residents. Danny Barber, chair of NYCHA’s Citywide Council of Presidents and a lifelong resident of Jackson Houses in Melrose, said in the press release that the proposal would offer residents a way of gaining financial independence.
“This proposal will pay dividends in uplifting our families and creating stronger neighborhoods,” said Barber. “We’re pleased with the first steps and moving forward to additional conversation to build more sustainable resources for the residents of Public Housing.”
Tenants are also hopeful that they will be able to receive $450 million in order to fix the boilers and elevators in their buildings. Though no action has been taken on that request to date, NYCHA Federal Monitor, Bart Schwartz, has approved of the projects plan.
“Now is that enough?” said Topping. “Of course not, we are going to need more money than that, but we’re going to start with getting that.”
This story was updated on Feb. 25.