The major NYCHA overhaul we need

New York Daily News
Op-ed by Rafael E. Cestero
April 10, 2018

All the elected officials who called for removal of NYCHA Chair Shola Olatoye have gotten their wish.

Careful what you wish for. Calling for resignations makes for great political theater, but Olatoye wasn’t the cause of the Housing Authority’s long-standing systemic problems, and her resignation won’t solve them. Neither will the layering of monitor upon monitor over the Authority, or the endless tour circuit and photo-ops.

If we really care about rescuing NYCHA, we need to start thinking far bigger, right now.

Money. NYCHA needs a serious infusion of capital to kick start efforts to preserve its buildings and help its tenants. The city and state have each made annual commitments, but NYCHA needs a reliable and recurring infusion of cash across multiple years at all levels of government.

A good place to start would be a city and state commitment of $500 million per year for 10 years, as proposed by the New York Housing Conference. That should be combined with an increase in the existing New York City mansion tax. The tens of millions of dollars in revenue it generates should be dedicated solely for NYCHA’s use to sustain itself into the future.

Within 90 days of receiving that funding commitment, NYCHA’s board should be required to produce a new 10-year capital and asset management plan which includes a commitment to remediating all mold, lead, heat and hot water and other public health hazards within 24 months.

Governance. If the way NYCHA runs and operates itself doesn’t change, new funding will hit the same old roadblocks.

Gov. Cuomo recently announced a state of emergency, a move I applaud if it’s used for real reform. The governor should use his authority to dissolve the current board of NYCHA, which doesn’t reflect the needs or challenges faced by the nation’s largest public housing agency.

A new NYCHA Board should be made up of civic leaders with experience in real estate, property management, asset management and finance, along with tenant representatives.

A new seven-member board should be led by a volunteer chair with the skills and experience that the board chair of any large corporation must have. The new board should then select a President and CEO to run NYCHA, insulating the position from political gamesmanship. That’s the standard operating structure that a company the size of NYCHA would have.

Labor. In addition to changing the board, steps must be taken to end the unions’ stranglehold on NYCHA’s operations. The current project labor agreement has caused some of the most significant delays and impediments in getting repair work done quickly and on budget.

We need to give NYCHA the ability to renegotiate union contracts and move to binding arbitration on an expedited timeframe, to break the pattern of bargaining that for decades has limited NYCHA’s flexibility on work-rules and its ability to complete projects in a timely manner.

NYCHA needs to break the monopoly and create fair competition for management and maintenance services.

Additionally, the city and state should create a Public Housing Capital Construction Agency, in the mold of the School Construction Authority, that has the power to independently negotiate project labor agreements, amend work rules, speed procurement, contract out for project management and utilize innovative approaches like design-build that will help speed emergency work and increase productivity and cost-savings.

Regulatory reform. If the federal government is going to abandon public housing under the guise of giving states and cities more control, then it ought to actually give New York true control.

We have a President who likes to negotiate, so let’s have a real negotiation with the department of Housing and Urban Development to give the governor’s state of emergency the powers equivalent of a federal receivership.

This would give the new board and CEO relief from major pain points and empower local decision-making without endless layers of HUD approvals, which can suffocate even the best intentions.

These are problems that everybody “in the room” has long known about, but nobody has been willing to own up to. NYCHA has ping-ponged between being a political hot potato no one wants to touch, to a political darling everyone wants to wring their hands over during brief televised tours.

In both cases, the 500,000 NYCHA residents lose out. No more.

Cestero is president and chief executive officer of the Community Preservation Corporation