Residents who attended yesterday’s City Council Committee on Public Housing hearing accused the New York City Housing Authority of employing aggressive tactics to transfer people out of under-occupied units.
NYCHA is out of compliance with The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s mandate that all state housing authorities assign families to appropriately sized apartments. There are more than 15,200 overcrowded apartments and over 56,300 under-occupied apartments in the city, according to NYCHA data collected earlier this year.
An under-occupied apartment has one extra bedroom. Extremely under-occupied units have two or more bedrooms and make up about 12,000 of NYCHA’s under-occupied units.
The agency is ratcheting up its rightsizing transfer program to meet improvement goals laid out in Plan NYCHA, which is a comprehensive five-year plan aimed at preserving and improving the city’s public housing system for years to come. While residents, advocates and legislators agree that families should be placed in appropriately-sized apartments, many of them are not pleased with the way the plan is being implemented.
“I understand the need to maximize the utilization of the City’s precious public housing stock. I am, however, extremely concerned by the lack of forethought that has been evident throughout the process,” Assemblymember Linda B. Rosenthal, who represents many public housing residents in her Upper West Side district, wrote in prepared testimony. “I have heard from dozens of public housing residents in my district who have been given misleading and often incorrect information by the housing assistants to whom they were directed.”
Once NYCHA identifies residents living in under-occupied apartments, they are sent a letter requesting that they visit their development’s management office and place themselves and others living in their unit on a transfer list within ten days. If they fail to answer the first letter, they are given ten more days to answer a second notice.
If the second letter is also met without a response, residents will receive a third letter informing them that they’ve been placed on a borough-wide transfer list. Up until a small window of time after residents receive the third letter, they can still put in a request with management to be transferred within their housing development.
The system itself doesn’t appear to be fundamentally flawed. But, problems seem to be arising because NYCHA is doing a lousy job educating its tenants on the process.
Many residents of under-occupied units are unaware that they won’t face punishment for failing to comply with the first letter. Conversely, the transfer request letters don’t explicitly state that residents living in extremely under-occupied apartments face eviction if they fail to follow-through with the transfer process.
“We can always do better. We recognize that we have an issue of communication,” Carlos Laboy-Diaz, Executive Vice President for Operations at NYCHA, said during the hearing. “We recognize that we can do a lot better with communication, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to move in a direction that deals with the problem.”
Moving forward the agency is going to have to pay special attention to how they communicate with senior residents, disabled residents and foreign-language speaking residents. The Bronx branch of Legal Services NYC filed a lawsuit last month on behalf of several senior residents who are facing eviction because NYCHA failed to adequately educate them on the transfer process and inform them of their transfer rights.
Will Reese Jr., one of the seniors residents named in the lawsuit, gave testimony at yesterday’s hearing. He discussed the difficulties he encountered trying to add additional occupants to his apartment – a process which other residents in attendance said is extremely difficult to do. Each year residents are required to undergo a re-certification process that determines their rent and tallies the number of occupants in their apartments.
From 2003-2009 Reese tried to get his daughters listed as occupants in the unit he’s lived in for over 50 years. Reese, who worked for NYCHA for 20 years before he had to retire on disability after suffering an injury on the job, said that NYCHA informed him in 2009 that his tenancy would be terminated because he declined to transfer to a smaller apartment.
He voluntarily put in a transfer request in 2007, and in 2008 he visited the apartment made available to him, but turned it down because it’s didn’t not have enough room to accommodate him and his two girls — whom NYCHA never recognized as occupants.
Like many others, Reese said he was initially unaware that he could be evicted for failing to transfer to an apartment offered to him. To avoid eviction, Reese later said he would accept the smaller apartment, but was denied the request.
“My lawyer has been helping me appeal the decision, but I have lost two appeals,” Reese said in his testimony. “If I lose my apartment, I have nowhere else to go.”
Laboy-Diaz said that NYCHA didn’t evict any residents for issues directly related to right-sizing last year. Critics argued that the agency finds other violations to evict certain residents on.
City Council Members, residents and advocates also argued that transfer request letters aren’t written in multiple languages for non-English speaking tenants, and that the $350 moving stipend that residents receive from NYCHA is not nearly enough to cover moving costs in New York City. NYCHA also heard complaints about the rudeness and aggressiveness with which some development management staff-members deal with the tenants involved in the process.
After completing nearly 3,000 transfers last year, NYCHA officials did seem receptive to input on better practices. In a City Council hearing rarity, a top official from a city agency actually stayed and listened to public testimony. Brian Clarke, Vice President of Operations for Support Services at NYCHA, listened to each resident and advocate air out their grievances with the NYCHA.
Of course Clarke only did this after Bronx City Councilwoman Maria Carmen Del Arroyo essentially yelled at him to do so.
“I’m going to suggest that you stay in the room after your testimony is over, so you can listen to what the public is going to say,” Arroyo said. “We’re the only ones that hear the issues, and you leave some low-level middle-manager here in the room that may or may not take that message back. Please listen to the public’s testimony so that you can understand the reality that we experience in our districts every single day.”