Con men know that when one approach fails, it’s time to give the scheme a fancy new name, invest in more public relations and line up shills to sell it. This is often called the “Big Con.” Programs such as Rental Assistance Demonstration, Permanent Affordability Commitment Together, and recently the “Blueprint for Change,” have all been presented by New York City as solutions to a shortfall of funds needed to repair and maintain public housing. All are new names for the same con job — privatization of public housing.
Tenant organizers at the Fulton New York City Housing Authority complex have been fighting privatization plans for 18 months. They have held marches, protests, meetings and speak-outs during spring, summer, winter and fall, explaining to residents what was at stake and demanding much-needed repairs. They have collected 635 signed petitions from heads of households out of the 944 apartments in the complex, explicitly opposing RAD and demanding that public housing remain public.
Last month, Fulton residents heard all their elected representatives recommend privatization as the answer to what should be done for needed repairs at their complex. The politicians had promised tenants help in avoiding privatization.
The plan, unveiled by an advisory body called the “Working Group,” advocates big real estate encroachment on the Fulton campus via building four commercial facilities and four residential buildings where 50 percent of the apartments would be market rate in this high rent, gentrified neighborhood. No guarantees were presented that this will raise funds for desperately needed repairs. There is no transparency concerning where the funding will come from except from some unnamed developers, whose primary interest is in making money, not helping tenants.
At the same time, without tenant consultation, the city is privatizing Fulton, apartment by apartment. Tenants report that when their leases come up for renewal, the new NYCHA lease calls for conversion to Section 8, with no other options offered. Residents have far fewer rights under Section 8 than Section 9 (public housing), and Section 8 is administered by private managers. (section-8-apartments.org) The City will also be issuing “Tenant Protection Vouchers” which, far from protecting residents and their rights, is part of the process to erode these rights. (nyc.gov)
Resident organizers are outraged
“We have over 600 signatures that are against RAD, air rights or whatever they are trying to do here, we are all against it. We want to keep public housing. We matter in Fulton Housing. Leave us alone. We want you to just fix the repairs and make it a good place for all of us,” stated Jacqueline Lara, a long-time Fulton resident and community organizer at a recent protest.
Linda Ocasio, a Fulton resident for more than 40 years, explained that,
“[repairs] is what we pay rent for. We are supposed to have repairs done, we shouldn’t have to pay extra for anything. RAD is not the way to go. RAD is taking from us what little we have.”
How RAD conversions harm tenants
Ocean Bay Houses in Far Rockaway is the first campus to convert to RAD in this city. NYCHA calls it a “huge success,” and organizes bus tours for other NYCHA tenants to see it. The city doesn’t mention that over 26 months, 80 households were evicted there, more than double the eviction rate of the next largest campus.
The new landlord, a partnership between a developer and a management company, filed housing court complaints against more than 300 tenants since taking over in late 2016. With 1,395 units, that’s a case for every five units. (citylimits.org)
Ocasio and other Fulton residents visited Ocean Bay during one of NYCHA’s public relations trips “to see for ourselves.” She found that “repairs were NOT done in a timely way.” But there is more. The campus “is in lockdown,” she said. “You have to get permission for everything. If you want to stand outside, you have to get permission. You can’t go past the curfew – you have to get permission. It’s about the same thing as being in jail,” she added. “I grew up and turned 18 many, many years ago. I don’t need permission to go outside and sit on my front lawn.”
And then there’s Wavecrest Management, the private company now running Ocean Bay. It has a sordid reputation with residents in the Bronx, where it manages over 160 buildings. According to tenants, housing lawyers and condo owners in the Bronx, the company has a reputation for mismanagement, not responding to tenant complaints and filing hundreds of eviction cases in housing court. A WNYC investigation found a disturbing pattern of unaddressed building violations and slow response times to complaints. (WNYC News)
Grassroots struggle pushes back demolition plan
The RAD plan the city had tailored for Fulton originally called for demolishing two viable and occupied buildings and replacing them with market-rate housing. Tenant protests effectively pushed back plans for demolition.
In response to these protests, a “Working Group” was established in October 2019 by the city, allegedly to discuss and solve the problem of the neglect of repairs for Fulton NYCHA. The stated intent was to “ensure that the plan to improve these developments meets all of the residents’ needs, because they deserve nothing less,” according to New York City Mayor de Blasio. (nyc.gov)
Working Group never listened to tenants
Attending the meetings, in addition to the Mayor, was a ‘who’s who’ of the city’s big-wigs: U.S. Congressman Jerry Nadler, New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer, Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer, Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development Vicki Been, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer, State Senator Brad Hoylman, New York State Assembly Member Richard N. Gottfried, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, State Senator Robert Jackson, and the $400,000 per-year salaried Gregory Russ, NYCHA Chairman and Chief Executive Officer and their staffs.
For public consumption, press releases announcing the formation of the Working Group called it “a chance to listen to residents carefully” and ”give NYCHA residents an effective voice,” as “the voices of NYCHA residents must always be front and center.” To the residents they said, we “encourage you to attend the open Working Group sessions to voice your thoughts and concerns.” The words were fine, but the reality was far different. (nyc.gov)
But it wasn’t the Working Group that was in charge. The privateers – real estate magnates, Wall St. developers and financial and housing managers hungry for action — were really calling the shots. And the politicians were representing them.
Mayor threatens to neglect Fulton development
A tenant explained, “Mayor Bill de Blasio in a Town Hall meeting with residents admitted everything — that he’s going to take over these developments and if we don’t convert to RAD, he was going to neglect our development. He scared people.”
But the ‘Big Con’ was on.
The city administration and local elected politicians were only pretending to listen to tenants. Tenant organizers who had led the struggle for repairs were not even invited to the Working Group. Only a few pro-RAD residents were invited. One organizer said, “We had to push our way in.”
Fulton tenant organizers attended the Working Group in good faith for over a year, raising the needs of the residents and many ways to fund repairs without privatization. But the mayor and his toadies were not listening. “The majority of the residents don’t want Section 8,” one resident organizer explained. Another added, “They said they were listening and that they were going to follow through, but then they started having closed meetings [without the tenants]”.
The politicians saw an opening when hardships imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic made tenant organizing more difficult, Ocasio said. “They took advantage of COVID-19 to intimidate residents.”
The final recommendation of the Working Group was unveiled in December in a Zoom presentation, even though many Fulton residents don’t have computers or internet access. The few tenants who had signed on to the politicians’ plan read from prepared scripts, giving the appearance that they were not even trusted to speak in their own words. Yet, the language of the Zoom presentation was geared to reassure NYCHA residents that their needs and concerns were being met. The tenants who had demanded repairs without RAD or privatization were not invited to speak.
Militant tenants were ‘excommunicated’
Ocasio explained that the resident protests for the past year “took demolition and air rights off the table,” but the politicians kept everything else. The Working Group proposal was “the same proposal after changing the name.”
Those who still objected to the plan after it was announced were asked to leave the Working Group. Ocasio continued: “They decided that they didn’t want the input we were giving them. We were excommunicated last week. We were told that our input was not necessary.”
All their promises of “tenant protections” mean little without independent accountability to the tenants and the right of the tenants to review and decide for themselves what best meets their needs.
‘You weren’t voted in to take from us’
Lara summed up the situation, “The politicians are really good at telling us what you are going to give us and what you are going to offer us, but once you get in office everything changes and you want to take from us. You weren’t voted in to take from us. … You are a bunch of liars.”
Tenant activists have not been conned, but have entered a new stage of the struggle. Their fight for needed repairs and against privatization will not end just because the politicians and their financial overlords want it to. The only guarantee of their rights is the organizing and struggle of the tenants themselves and the solidarity they get from the community.