Bill de Blasio

Torres critical of federal NYCHA settlement

Some public housing tenants’ advocates applaud, but not the City Council Oversight and Investigations Committee chairman

New York City Councilman Richie Torres at a protest by public housing residents

New York City Councilman Richie Torres at a protest by public housing residents Jeff Reed/NYC City Council/Flickr

Federal prosecutors and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Monday that they had reached a new consent agreement that will install a federal monitor over the long-troubled New York City Housing Authority. The agreement will release $1.2 billion in city funds and at least $550 million in state funds to correct violations of health and safety standards that have harmed many low-income residents. The city must provide an additional $200 million a year until conditions sufficiently improve, as determined by the monitor.

While many low-income housing advocates greeted the conclusion of the federal investigation with relief, New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres lamented the city accepting ongoing federal intrusion into NYCHA’s management, noting in a public statement that it “surrenders both local control and local dollars to federal power.”

Previously, Torres said the terms of any NYCHA reform should be dictated by the city, not a U.S. attorney. “It should done through a transparent budget with public hearings, not through a consent decree shrouded in secrecy,” he said in a May letter to City Hall.

Torres has been one of the Council’s leading voices on conditions in the housing authority’s apartments. He chaired the Council’s Public Housing Committee from 2014 to 2017, and as the current chairman of the Oversight and Investigations Committee, held a February hearing on heating outages in NYCHA housing.

At a City Hall press conference on Monday afternoon, de Blasio said that NYCHA would maintain control of its housing, despite the appointment of a federal monitor. “Stan Brezenoff (the interim NYCHA Chairman) and Vito Mustaciuolo as acting general manager are running NYCHA,” de Blasio said. “Is the monitor there to make sure those plans are implemented? 100 percent.”

De Blasio also emphasized that entering the consent decree was a choice, citing similar agreements with the New York Police Department and the New York City Department of Correction, also brokered by the Southern District of New York. “I don’t fear this consent decree. I embrace it because it’s a step forward,” the mayor said.

Torres responded Monday, telling City & State that there’s no evidence the federal monitor will improve conditions, noting that problems with mold have continued despite the existence of a federal monitor . “NYCHA has been under scrutiny from the U.S. Attorney, from the governor, from the comptroller, from the (New York City) Department of Investigation, from the City Council’s Public Housing Committee, the City Council’s Oversight and Investigations Committee. There’s no shortage of monitoring.” Torres said.

Referring to the long-term decline in federal support for public housing – perhaps the threat of more cuts, as proposed by President Donald Trump – Torres added: “What NYCHA needs is more money, and more efficiency and more accountability. Not necessarily federal monitoring.”

Other advocates for NYCHA tenants hailed the agreement because it secures the promise that the housing authority will have to answer for the condition of its units. Judith Goldiner of the Legal Aid Society, which represents NYCHA tenants and other low-income clients, saw the settlement in a much more positive light, saying she was “thrilled.”

“I actually didn’t anticipate that something good would actually come out of this as opposed to just pointing fingers,” Goldiner said. “We were hoping that accountability would hopefully result in better conditions for my clients, which is what I care about – and it seems like it’s going to. I’m very excited about that.”

But Torres didn’t think history would be kind to the mayor’s handling of the beleaguered housing authority. “The mismanagement of NYCHA, as well as the attempt by the de Blasio Administration to mislead the public about the full nature and extent of that mismanagement, will be remembered as a blight on the legacy of our current mayor and those who came before him,” Torres said in a statement.

Asked by a reporter Monday if he wanted to apologize to NYCHA tenants, de Blasio returned to an old refrain, saying that NYCHA had had problems going back decades, and that past mayoral administrations, as well as the federal and state government are to blame.

“I think if anyone wants to say there’s one person to blame, you’re kidding yourself,” he said. “You want an apology? I apologize, and I want to hear everyone else apologize. But more importantly I want to fix the problem, and this is the first time the city has taken it seriously in the way it needs to.”