BY EILEEN STUKANE | The 11 buildings that form the Robert Fulton Houses, between Ninth and 10th Aves., from W. 16th to W. 19th Sts., are much more than the brick and mortar that have been holding them together since they were built in the early 1960s. These New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) buildings are home to 2,166 low-income residents who live in 944 apartments—but they don’t just live there. They have grown up there, given birth there, taken care of elderly parents there. Apartments in Fulton Houses are often Ground Zero for several generations of family, all sharing the same ancestral space. A bedroom where a young daughter once slept is now the room of that daughter’s son.
Even though the development has suffered from neglect due to lack of federal funding and bureaucratic mismanagement, monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment continues to be an average $631 in a neighborhood where two-bedrooms commonly rent for $4,752 a month. Yet, as Miguel Acevedo, president of the Fulton Tenants Association said, “The high-pressure steam system that we’ve got has been here since 1962. Every winter, at least once or twice a week, our tenants have either no heat, no hot water, no matter what the temperature is outside. They’ve gone days without heat or hot water.”
Residents knew changes had to be made within their buildings to repair deteriorating conditions, but they were caught off-guard by the details of NYCHA’s proposal for their rescue.
Those who live in corner Buildings 1 and 11—Building 1 on Ninth Ave. at W. 16th St.; Building 11 on Ninth Ave. at W. 19th St.—were particularly jolted upon learning that as part of a public/private proposal to raise what NYCHA reports is $168 million needed to repair and maintain Fulton Houses, NYCHA is considering demolition of their six-story dwellings, which for many are their generational homes.
“My mom has lived here for 59 years,” said David Nunez, who shares an apartment with his mother in Building 11. “I’m concerned about seniors like my mom, who’s 84, being uprooted. She knows the neighborhood and can walk around here with her eyes closed.”
Residents of all 72 apartments in Buildings 1 and 11 would be relocated into a new building constructed on the grounds. Then, two new luxury high-rise buildings would be built on the land they left, each high-rise comprised of 70% market-rate apartments, and 30% affordable units.
According to Jonathan Gouveia, senior vice-president, real estate development, NYCHA, these high-rises would be within the scale of the two 25-story high-rises that are currently part of Fulton Houses. The new construction would be undertaken by a private developer in partnership with NYCHA, which would retain ownership of the land and lease it to the developer.
In addition, the developer would make major repairs to the older buildings. Starting out, the aim would be to upgrade the infrastructure, replace the ancient steam heating system, fix the aging roofs, install new elevators and security systems, and take on the renovation and modernization of individual apartments, some currently mold-infested.
This—what NYCHA calls a “concept”—has been greeted with skepticism by some, and with outright protest by others.
NYCHA has never before demolished any of its own buildings.
“First, it’s a concept. We’re talking about the demolition of two low-rise buildings, the construction of two high-rise. This is just a concept to demonstrate how this could work, and showing folks how the numbers from a finance prospective works,” Gouveia said, “and one of the basic principles that we live by here is that before anybody is moved out of a building that could be potentially demolished, we’re building the new building first. Residents would go into brand-new apartments.” (Unconfirmed is reporting in the New York Times that revenue from the Fulton Houses would also help to finance repairs at Elliott-Chelsea housing.)
What’s Driving NYCHA’s Concept
When the news broke in April about NYCHA’s concept, a letter signed by Congressmember Jerrold Nadler, New York State Senator Brad Hoylman, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, New York State Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, and New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson went out to Kathryn Garcia, Interim Chair and CEO of NYCHA, urging NYCHA to communicate directly with the residents of Fulton Houses.
At the time, people were piecing together rumors and fact—and still are. NYCHA presented a new rollout of its concept by holding a series of six information-sharing-and-listening sessions, two a day from May 20-22, to engage with residents of Fulton Houses. The sessions were held in the library of Bayard Rustin High School (351 W. 18th St.), where about 10 separate tables, each with a NYCHA facilitator listening to concerns, accommodated gatherings of Fulton residents.
At a May 22 session attended by Chelsea Community News, resident questions covered a range of issues: Will there be rent increases due to renovations? What about utilities? Will money generated by Fulton stay in Fulton? What if I don’t want to convert to Section 8—where does that leave me? Will I be able to have the same neighbor I’ve had for 40 years if I have to move into a new building?
The attending residents listened to NYCHA moderators David Pristin, executive vice-president for external affairs, and Gouveia, explain the federal government’s Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program and the need to switch Fulton from Section 9 public housing funding to a Section 8 housing choice voucher program, which is preferred by Congress when it votes for appropriations.
“Why can’t we just get the money to do the repairs?” asked one woman seated at a table, and everyone around her nodded in agreement.
Hers was a reasonable request. But getting money to maintain public housing has become a big problem—not just in New York City, but across the nation. Figures from 2017 show NYCHA needing $32 billion for capital upkeep across the city and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) granting only about $4 billion. HUD has little desire to fund public housing with federal dollars. Our parsimonious federal government thinks it has found another way: steer cities into the public/private partnerships of its RAD program. Although RAD was created during the Obama administration, it has been ramped up during the Trump years.
Under RAD, a developer takes on the property management of public housing, and gets a federal government subsidy and reliable Section 8 rent—which costs tenants 30% of their income over 20-year renewable leases. At the same time, as mentioned earlier, that developer maintains the buildings—and in the case of Fulton Houses, builds new ones—and pays NYCHA to lease the land for 99 years. But now the property that is Fulton Houses, which could not be financially leveraged before, becomes an asset, because banks are willing to finance conventional loans against it, consider tax-exempt bonding, and perhaps, other financial deals. RAD allows a development team to leverage debt and make capital improvements, at no cost to HUD.
As Victor Bach, senior housing policy analyst, Community Service Society (CSS) said, “If the federal government wanted to, it could provide capital grants to public housing authorities to do the same thing [management and maintenance], but that’s not ideologically acceptable to Congress. We view RAD as the only medicine Washington is offering to public housing authorities to address their huge capital backlog, and we think it’s important that residents be well-informed about it and use the opportunity as best they can and minimize any risks.”
CSS has made a standing offer to the Fulton Tenants Association to visit and brief residents about how RAD conversion works.
For residents who want a greater understanding of NYCHA’s proposed switch to RAD and Section 8 vouchers at Fulton Houses, CSS offers, online, Resident Handbook: A Guide to NYCHA RAD Conversion. NYCHA has almost completed the RAD conversion of Ocean Bay Apartments in Far Rockaway, Queens, but that conversion did not include a demolition of buildings.
Meanwhile, at The Fulton Houses
“Displacement is the big concern, fear of being displaced and being relocated anywhere.” Acevedo said. When the Fulton Tenants Association met to discuss NYCHA’s proposed demolition of two buildings, “It was contentious,” Acevedo recalled. People were upset and rightfully so. I don’t think there’s any alternative in all honesty, but as [via] an investment from a private developer. The only way he’s going to try to recoup money as a profit and also to preserve Fulton Houses is through the [construction of a new] market-rate building. The New York City Housing Authority has not received much money from the federal government in decades. So where are they going to get the money to renovate? I don’t know. I would prefer an alternative, 120%. I would prefer that, but I can’t see one.”
David Nunez admits that the situation is nerve-wracking, but he sees an inevitability. “It’s public housing and it’s NYCHA. We never thought something like this would happen. We all grew up in the neighborhood. It’s prime real estate. It was bound to happen when you saw Google come in, and you saw the whole ambience of the whole community change.”
Still, that has not stopped some residents from forming the Independent Tenants Association and demonstrating on the grounds of Fulton Houses, and, recently, in front of City Hall, to demand that public housing remain public.
Jacqueline Lara, vice-president of the new Independent Tenants Association, does not believe what she hears from NYCHA spokespeople because she contacted elected officials and says she spoke with Leroy Williams, director for community development at NYCHA, when she initially heard the rumors and realized that she lived in Building 1, one of the Fulton Houses that may be slated for demolition.
“They all had no idea what I was talking about, hadn’t heard anything about it,” Lara noted, “and now everybody is, ‘Oh well, maybe it’s not a bad idea to demolish a building.’ ”
Lara repeated what so many others have voiced: “Just fix what needs to be fixed, new elevators, boilers. That’s it. Leave it the way it is. Once this gets demolished, there won’t be anymore NYCHA. There won’t be more affordable housing. At least we can afford this. I feel bad because a lot of people are going to lose their apartments. I’m not just fighting for myself. I’m fighting for everybody.”
NYCHA’s David Pristin and Jonathan Gouveia continue to refute the worry that people have about losing their homes: “We want folks to understand, and we continue to try to assure people, that if you live in public housing now, you are grandfathered in. There is no concern regarding eligibility or being kicked out.”
However, the disbelief one hears from Lara and others is likely to be an ongoing challenge for NYCHA.
At CSS, Bach understands the feelings coming out of Fulton Houses. “There is a certain amount of fear and distrust among residents and a lot of it is, I think, justified. No matter what NYCHA is planning, there’s an enormous amount of distrust, because residents have been through nearly two decades of disastrous living conditions,” Bach noted. “They’re still suffering from them. There’s a distrust of the Authority no matter what it proposes, and these are reasonable feelings for residents to have at this stage of the game.”
First, a Parking Lot, Then a Playground
One of the recent reasons residents are wary of NYCHA is that when its concept was initially proposed, the talk was about using an employee parking lot as the location for construction of the building that would house the residents of Buildings 1 and 11. Then NYCHA proposed that a better location would be on the site of Fulton Houses’ newly constructed $770,000 sprinkler playground for children, which has not yet officially opened. The sprinkler park, with its cushioned ground surface and adjacent new barbecues, were funded from the $100 million public housing package allocated by the state for NYCHA improvements in 2015.
As Bach explains, CSS and other advocacy groups wanted the money for infrastructure, but Governor Andrew Cuomo slated it for other types of improvements. “The Governor required that it not go to infrastructure but that it be divvied up among the legislators in the district to use for quality of life,” he said. Assemblymember Gottfried was able to direct $770,000 to Fulton Houses for the recreational upgrades. The sprinkler park is scheduled to open at the beginning of June.
A $770,000 investment in a play area that may be razed shortly after it has opened is baffling to Lara, who said, “That $800,000 could have paid for the boiler.”
The communication between NYCHA and residents of the Fulton Houses will continue, at a public Town Hall meeting on June 4, 6:30-8:30pm, at IS 70 (333 W. 17th St. btw. Eighth & Ninth Aves.). Visioning Sessions with Fulton residents will be scheduled throughout the summer by NYCHA.
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