Tenants question pricey apts. in NY public housing

Residents, lawmakers question plan to build pricey apartments in NYC public housing complexes

Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) -- Saying they feared second-class-citizen treatment in their own neighborhoods, public housing residents Friday bashed an unusual plan to lease land in their complexes for new apartments aimed mostly at richer residents.

The plan would put new, mostly market-rate rental buildings on parking lots, basketball courts and outdoor plazas in venerable Manhattan public housing developments that occupy what's now prime real estate.

The city Housing Authority calls the idea its best shot at getting big money for much-needed repairs, with the additional upside of creating hundreds of new affordable apartments without spending public dollars. Developers would pay to build the roughly 4,000 new units, and about one-fifth of them would be reserved for lower-income tenants.

Even in a densely built city where luxury buildings sometimes share a block with homeless shelters, the idea of pricey new apartments within subsidized housing developments is a novelty. Some residents see it as fraught with the potential for culture clash and questions about the fairness of using public housing land for other purposes.

"Infringing on the last, best affordable housing resource in our city ... is the sum worth the sacrifice?" Demaris Reyes, who lives in a public housing development on Manhattan's Lower East Side and runs a housing and preservation group there, wondered aloud at a City Council committee hearing Friday.

Several council members urged the Housing Authority to slow down and do more to include residents in the plan. Developers could be asked for proposals as soon as this spring, though the plan needs federal approval, and reviews and community meetings are expected to take at least the next 18 months.

Known as NYCHA, the nation's biggest public housing authority operates about 178,000 apartments that house 403,000 people around the city. Many of the buildings are decades old, and federal support for fixing and improving them has shrunk by nearly $900 million since 2001, Chairman John Rhea told lawmakers. While the agency has been criticized for being slow to spend some money it did get, Rhea said, it had an additional $6 billion in unfinanced needs.

The development plan would generate an estimated $30 million to $50 million a year for replacing elevators and roofs, updating heating systems and rehabbing apartments. The agency also plans to ask potential developers to propose security upgrades and backup power systems for the complexes.

"This plan represents NYCHA's single largest opportunity to generate millions of dollars" for upgrades, and no residents would have to move, he said. "Many of the voices that may be against this plan will have to think about what the alternatives are."

But some residents and lawmakers wonder whether the public would get enough out of the deal.

"You're talking about building on Manhattan land, which is very precious," said Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who has pressed the authority to consider designating more than 20 percent of the apartments as affordable. Officials said they'll consider it, but they note that fewer market-rate apartments will mean less money from developers.

Others wonder about the social consequences of placing tenants paying market rates, which can easily be $2,500 a month for a one-bedroom, into complexes based on housing people who can't afford such prices.

The new buildings could spur landlords nearby to raise their rents, Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito suggested. Jane Wisdom, the president of the residents' association at a NYCHA complex on the Upper West Side, wonders whether police would take the same approach to everyone.

"Will they protect the new buildings more than they protect the area?" she asked at Friday's hearing.

Aixa Torres, the president of the tenants' group at a lower Manhattan NYCHA development, worries that the plan could dilute residents' political power in their communities and create a divisive environment in which longtime residents lose their parking spots and picnic tables to accommodate newcomers who might look down on them.

Rhea said the authority was attuned to concerns about gentrification and would do "anything we can do to look at disparities that exist in our communities, that we can improve, enhance and not exacerbate."

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