“Get Russ out!” public-housing tenants from around the city chanted outside the New York City Housing Authority headquarters in Lower Manhattan June 9, demanding the ouster of Gregory Russ, who was appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio to head NYCHA in 2019.
Russ, who previously headed public-housing authorities in Minneapolis and Cambridge, Massachusetts, has come under fire from tenants for his advocacy of bringing in private investors and managers to finance and run the city’s public housing, which has been plagued by underfunding and a years-long backlog of repairs.
“He’s more considered to us as a hit man,” says Ronald Topping, president of the tenant association at the Adams Houses in the South Bronx. “We saw it coming before he got here.”
Russ’s “blueprint” plan would use public-private partnerships to foot the estimated $40 billion bill for making repairs needed in NYCHA’s 302 developments, which contain about 170,000 apartments and are almost all more than 50 years old. Proponents of the plan say that public/private ownership would allow an extra $650 per month in federal funding not available to projects that are completely publicly owned. The plan, according to a New York Post article, would also trim costs by $1,000 a unit per year through measures such as reduced energy usage and preventative maintenance.
Not So RAD
Another partial-privatization program is Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), which the Obama administration created in 2011. It allows local public-housing authorities to borrow money from or sell a controlling interest to private investors, in order to fund repairs and keep rents low. Russ used the program to attract private investors while he was in charge of public housing in Minneapolis and Cambridge.
NYCHA tenants could lose their rights in terms of evictions, succession rights, and the lack of ability to pay rent due to one’s income.
“RAD brings private investment and private capital. We need that,” he told WNBC-TV in 2019. But he insisted that he wanted to sell the management of NYCHA developments, not the actual buildings. He called it a way to “release the value of that asset without losing a single unit.”
“Greg Russ is a member of the limousine liberal class that works with grass-roots and low-income housing, but they really represent developers and private fiduciary interests that represent RAD and the trust legislation that he has,” says Reginald Bowman, senior member of the Citywide Council of Presidents, the nine-member panel elected by the heads of NYCHA tenant associations from nine districts in the city.
“He came out of Cambridge basically in 2017 to privatize the entire public housing stock in Minneapolis,” says Ladan Yusuf of the Defend Glendale and Public Housing Coalition, founded in 2014 to stop privatization in Minneapolis, where Russ’s family still lives. “He hired a lot of his Wall Street developers, and he gave them a million dollars to come up with these plans, and then in 2019, he came here.”
Section 8 Conversion Bad for Tenant Rights
Another issue is the proposal to convert NYCHA buildings from Section 9 housing, under which all funding and capital must come from public sources, regulated by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, to Section 8, which would allow the authority to borrow money from private banks and accept private-sector investments.
“Under Section 8, we would lose a lot of other rights we have right now under NYCHA, in terms of evictions, succession rights, and the lack of ability to pay rent due to your income,” says Brenda Temple.
Yet NYCHA tenants feel trapped between two bad alternatives. Their homes often have chronic problems such as mold, broken elevators, lack of heat and hot water, and poor security. Denise Harris says that in the 19 years she’s lived at the Richmond Terrace Houses in Staten Island, the lobby door in her building has never really had a functioning lock—so she carries a Taser.
Tenants say the city has done a poor job at running NYCHA, but privatization would serve the interests of big real estate. “We don’t want to go from one plantation to the next,” says Ethel Velez of Manhattan North.
She believes resident management is the answer. “If we’re going to revamp the system, revamp it with residents being part of the equation, not separate,” she says.
According to the Justice for All Coalition, formed in 2016 by public-housing tenants in Astoria and Long Island City, there is an official, legal option through which public-housing residents can take full or partial management responsibilities for their developments: resident management corporations. They are resident-led nonprofit groups that enter into a contract with the housing authority to manage things like security, resident screening, and possibly even financing.
“We’ve already owned it, we do the work every day. We’ve been running New York City public housing alone all the time!” says Carmen Quinones, a tenant leader at the Douglass Houses on Manhattan’s Upper West Side who’s now running for the City Council. “This is not new to us. I’ve been in my development 35 years, I keep it up, nobody does that!”
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