Inexcusable, as in no excuse

August 6, 2012 | Bloomberg, Bureaucracy, HUD, New York City, NYCHA, Public housing, Regulation, Renovation, Subsidy

By:David A. Smith


Many years ago, I became the volunteer treasurer for an organization whose previous treasurer, though both intelligent and responsible, was being roundly criticized for his job performance.  “You’re doing a terrible job as treasurer,” the organization’s president berated him (or so I heard the story).  “What do you mean?” he replied in outrage and bewilderment.  “I’m not doing anything!”


New York City Housing Authority board member Margarita Lopez isn’t impressed by Daily News coverage of the Housing Authority mess or by  News reporter Rich Schapiro.


Such is the quality of defense being offered by the executive leadership of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA, rhymes with bite-cha), as reported by the New York Daily News (August 3) article and accompanying New York Daily News editorial (August 3, 2012) (blue text), as the continuation of an enterprising series it’s been running on NYCHA’s failure:


NYCHA board sitting on nearly $1B in fed cash


The New York City Housing Authority and its board members have failed to spend nearly $1 billion that it has been hoarding since 2009 to make life more livable for the 400,000 residents of its 334 developments, the Daily News has learned.


In terms of indictments, this one is incredibly damning, because it is specific, it is on a massive scale, and it is of long standing:


The money from the federal government is supposed to repair leaky roofs, broken elevators, moldy walls and busted playground equipment in the authority’s crumbling properties.


But nearly half of the unspent dollars — $485 million — has been sitting untouched in NYCHA’s accounts for at least two years.


Some of it — $233 million — dates back to 2009 as the agency continues to spend its money at a glacial pace.


There can be no doubt, the failures lie in the central office:


The News uncovered in July that, over eight years, the City Council allocated $42 million to NYCHA for the installation of security cameras.


Yet NYCHA had not spent a penny of the funds, had not put up a single camera, had not beefed up the protection of residents who cope with some of the highest crime rates in the city.


The details are as scandalous as the headlines:


They get the money in annual installments and, unconscionably, they let it sit for two, three or four years before anyone fixes a leaky roof or replaces rattling windows with it.


While the housing developments deteriorate.

While tenants wait months for repairs.

While the cost for the planned work rises.


Ineptitude of this magnitude starts squarely with [Chairman John] Rhea [and board members Emily] Youssouf and [Margarita] Lopez in NYCHA’s highly paid executive offices and fits distressingly into a pattern of letting down their residents to the point of jeopardizing lives and safety.


Against these charges, what defenses does the authority offer?


This spending delay occurs in part because it takes NYCHA a long time to figure out what to do with the money.


Board member Margarita Lopez, a former city councilwoman who makes the same salary as Youssouf, defended the agency’s tortoiselike approach to spreading the wealth.


“There are unforeseen factors that have to be put in the equation,” she said outside her well-appointed East Village apartment. “NYCHA got the money from the federal government.

The federal government has different regulations and different demands.”


Board member Lopez blames federal regulations


That’s pathetic – and ridiculous.  If HUD said to New York, as it has said to Galveston, use it or lose it, do you think New York could find a way to get the money spent?


“They need to be investigated,” snapped Sheri Brown, a longtime resident of the Polo Grounds Houses in northern Manhattan.


Polo Grounds Houses, where the New York Giants used to play


“Why don’t they live in public housing?” asked Brown, whose apartment complaints include problems with mold, the ceilings and a collapsed bathroom wall.


“Tell them they need to be spending it immediately — if not sooner.”


This is what I manage?

Joe Pesci in The Super


Six years ago, I wrote about NYCHA’s fiscal problems and their boosting of residents’ rents (a move I endorsed because the residents in question were getting an undeserved bargain. 


Only two years ago, I chronicled NYCHA’s inability to renovate decaying public housing properties, and lauded incoming NYCHA general manager Michael Kelly, about whom I wrote, “If anybody can move NYCHA out of its legacy of command-and-control functions toward its future essentiality, it’s Mike.”


Mike when he was turning around the Washington DC housing Authority


But Mike Kelly didn’t last long – barely a year, and probably sooner:


General manager Michael Kelly was on loan to the Philadelphia Housing Authority for eight months [He left in November, 2010, a year and a half after John Rhea’s appointment] before becoming its permanent executive director Monday [August, 2011 – Ed.].


His departure seemed to have set off an exodus a year ago:


Three top officials are vacating roles at the New York City Housing Authority this month [Auugust, 2011 – Ed.], part of a growing exodus since former Lehman Brothers executive John Rhea took the helm two years ago, City Hall News reported. Those departures stand in addition to six other vacancies at NYCHA, complicating efforts to make the agency more effective and accountable.


There is something fundamentally wrong when so many experienced executives leave, and John Rhea ought to be smart enough to know it.


His replacement, Chief Information Technology Officer Atefeh Riazi, just joined the authority last year and has no previous housing experience.


From advertising to public housing?


Ms. Riazi may be extremely capable and dedicated, but having had little if any work experience in the public sector, she may also be easy pickings for the sclero-structure that stymies NYCHA.


CFO Felix Lam will be leaving Friday to take the position at City College, even as the position under him, budget and financial planning director, was already vacant.


Later this month, Eve Michel, the assistant deputy general manager for capital projects, will be leaving for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, while the position above hers, deputy general manager for capital projects, has been vacant for more than a year.


Greg Kern, who oversaw Section 8 housing as director of leased housing, was recently fired, according to City Hall News. And, Earl Andrews, vice chairman, resigned in March for using agency letterhead to write to a federal judge about a family friend with a child pornography charge.


That much turnover all at once is certain to take a toll, especially if you are a reforming newcomer bent on making fundamental change. 


Earlier this week, a survey found that the maintenance of public housing managed by NYCHA was unacceptable.


I once saw several smart people get positions of great responsibility within a very large federal housing agency intent on making dramatic and rapid change.  Within a short time, the new management style had alienated most of the older executives, whose departure triggered little regret in the newcomers.  But then the new leadership, having learned their management styles at small non-governmental organizations, hit the shape-shifting opposition of entrenched bureaucracy, and when they might have benefited from some experienced administrative infighters, none were to be found.


Meanwhile, NYCHA’s highly paid board members are unable or unwilling to explain how they’ve left so much money to basically collect dust.


And Mayor Bloomberg, who appointed all four members of the board, has refused repeated requests for comment over several days.


He’s too busy issuing edicts about large sodas and breast-feeding (and you think I’m kidding!).


The mayor says this is dangerous


His housing authority says this isn’t: Ingersoll Apartments


Residents are furious.


Rightly so.


“They give us an outrageous expected time for complaints if we file them,” said Tarcey Romero, 37, of the Soundview Houses in the Bronx.


She says she has waited two years to get a simple gasket replaced on her 17-year-old refrigerator.


“We have rats, a lot of rats and mice,” Romero said. “The doors don’t lock, the intercoms don’t work. If you want to talk safety issues, that’s it.”


Rats, a lot of rates? Soundview Houses



Nor is the anger confined to residents. 


At a public hearing last week, city Comptroller John Liu demanded to know why the agency is now moving to borrow an additional $500 million while NYCHA won’t spend what it already has.


Unwilling to let an agency that won’t spend borrow


“Why NYCHA is sitting on a pile of money while residents suffer and buildings deteriorate is incomprehensible,” Liu told The News. Liu’s predecessor, William Thompson, slammed the agency on the same issue in 2006.

Controller Liu’s charge seems irrefutable.

A former NYCHA insider told The News the agency is hobbled by the sheer size of its mission — to oversee a population that’s bigger than Boston’s.

The residents live in housing stock that’s rapidly falling apart — and the agency tries to please everyone.

“Everything at NYCHA takes forever,” the insider said. “It’s just a tough place to get things done.”

And it’s been a stepchild:


The agency has also been under varying supervision.  NYCHA was under former Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott’s authority until he became schools chancellor in March, and is now overseen by Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Robert Steel.


We’ve seen HUD slam Galveston for resisting HUD imperatives.  Where is HUD when it comes to new York?


Daily News reporter Eric Badia gets reaction of the front page this morning after showing it to NYCHA’s John Rhea.