Public Housing Residents Confront Deregulation Strengthening Resident Capacity in New York City

by Victor Bach and Sara Hovde

In New York City, public housing tenants stopped a privatization proposal in an unprecedented mobilization effort. But without continuing vigilance and technical support, public housing tenants will find themselves left out of decisions that directly affect their lives.

National Context

If the federal devolution of public housing becomes a reality, resident leaders will face new and daunting challenges. Current Senate and House bills — S.462 and HR.2 — will deregulate public housing, giving local housing authorities unprecedented powers, relatively free of federal regulation. Under continued Washington belt-tightening, authorities will use these prerogatives to manage their assets in ways that remove public housing as a resource for low-income people.

Under the proposed legislation, each authority can change rent levels (up to 30 percent of income), set admission preferences, and plan for privatization, sale, or demolition in individual developments. Resident leaders will need to press for seats at the planning table. More than ever, they will need to stay on top of changes and position themselves so their voice is heard not only at required public hearings, but on all critical matters. Most authorities will resist open access to information and real resident participation. It will not be easy.

New York City: Experience with the Moving to Work Application

This capacity-building approach is at an early stage in New York City, but without the blessing of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). Public housing residents number 181,000 households — 600,000 people in 342 developments — almost the same population as the entire city of San Francisco. Yet leaders lack information about pending policy decisions — at both Washington and local levels — and the technical resources that could strengthen their influence in decisions that profoundly affect their housing and communities.

NYCHA has a nationally-recognized 60-year record of high performance. But its official resident advisory structure — the Interim Council of Presidents (ICOP) — is largely ineffective. HUD regulations require election every 3 years, but none have been held since 1992 when ICOP was created. Convened at NYCHA’s initiative, ICOP functions without by-laws or openly scheduled meetings. Despite the recent heated national debate over public housing — and local plans in process — ICOP has not kept residents informed or developed an independent resident position or strategy. Hard-working residents lead tenant associations at the development level, but the citywide governance structure frustrates effective involvement in NYCHA policy making.

NYCHA provides some information to tenants, but it is limited and tightly controlled. A bilingual monthly newspaper goes to all developments, but many leaders find it does not meet their needs. Production and content are controlled by NYCHA. Significant federal or local initiatives are either not covered or given inadequate, biased treatment. NYCHA staff assistance to resident leaders is of limited use when the authority is the target of resident concerns.

The “wall” between NYCHA decision-making and resident leaders was made dramatically clear in the authority’s early 1997 draft application to HUD for the Moving to Work (MTW) Demonstration Program. Since MTW was an open door to federal deregulation, a citywide campaign by several advocacy organizations got the word to residents and spurred early requests by community leaders for inclusion in the application process — as HUD required. NYCHA never responded.

NYCHA’s draft application called for federal deregulation and contained some controversial proposals: ending rent ceilings, which would impose 60-percent increases on many working households; and targeting certain developments for higher income tenants. Yet the draft was made available for “viewing” in late April, only two weeks before the HUD-required hearing, and only at NYCHA offices. The Authority refused resident requests for distribution. Through the efforts of a city-wide network of resident leaders and advocates, word quickly spread about the application provisions and the scheduled hearings. Otherwise, a public hearing announcement in the classifieds of local newspapers might have gone unnoticed.

The May hearing was filled to overcapacity by 700 residents, with 60 leaders unanimously testifying against its key provisions and denouncing NYCHA for its secrecy. The mobilization of public housing tenants was unprecedented. Two days later the authority withdrew its MTW application. Over the long term, the victory added momentum to the efforts of a growing network of resident leaders who are working with organizations that provide technical support.

Lessons For Policy

Our experience underlines the importance of independent technical assistance to strengthen resident involvement in authority decisions as public housing devolves and local authorities assume wider planning powers. Federal funding for technical assistance must be an essential component of legislating devolution. These funds should be allocated directly to resident structures — without local authority oversight, possibly through a neutral intermediary — to make it possible for them to assume the independent, mature role in public housing governance that is their right.

Local resident leadership has a critical role to play in the future of public housing across the country. Planners can strengthen resident capacity by providing them with independent, reliable channels of information and technical and organizing assistance that relates directly to resident concerns and their institutional context. They can help connect residents so they can pursue their mutual interests.

Victor Bach and Sarah Hovde are, respectively, Director of Housing Policy and Research and a policy researcher at the Department of Public Policy at the Community Service Society of New York, 105 East 22nd St., New York, NY 10010. (212) 614-5492 or (212) 614-5541.

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