In 2009, Mayor Michael Bloomberg entrusted me with the incredible job of leading North America’s largest public housing authority. It was an extreme honor and privilege to be given the responsibility to take on the challenges, and seize the opportunities, that NYCHA faced at that time. Every day since, I have felt the same way – eager and energized to find solutions to the issues affecting NYCHA’s more than 620,000 public housing residents and Section 8 recipients in hundreds of communities across the five boroughs. However, after almost five years at the Authority, it is time for me to apply the many lessons I learned here to new endeavors.
Since my appointment as Chairman, everything we did as an organization was guided by the goals of increasing stability at NYCHA, finding new revenue sources to make up for declining government funding, and improving the quality of life for low-income families. To steer NYCHA’s transformation, residents, management, front-line staff, and other stakeholders worked together to develop Plan NYCHA, our long-term strategic roadmap to ensure the preservation of public housing in New York City for generations to come.
One can marvel at how much of Plan NYCHA we managed to achieve, resulting in real and tangible progress. To enhance the quality of life for residents and preserve our buildings for the future, we invested approximately $1.9 billion in capital projects over the past several years, including $423 million of federal Stimulus funds. This year’s Capital Fund Financing Program bond deal generated about $500 million for repairs at our developments – beginning with Cooper Park, Kingsborough, Ravenswood, and Sack Wern, and with many more to come. Another important and creative strategy to raise funds for much-needed capital work was our Federalization in 2010 of 21 former City and State NYCHA developments, which resulted in $400 million to revitalize the developments and now delivers approximately $75 million every year to our budget. Our maintenance and repair action plan improved NYCHA’s responses to repair requests.
We formed the Safety and Security Task Force in the first year of my tenure, bringing together NYCHA management, resident leaders, and the New York City Police Department to address pressing safety concerns. Enhanced building security was an important outcome of this collaboration, which included the installation of more than 5,000 closed-circuit television cameras at nearly 600 buildings in the past four and a half years alone. We also issued a comprehensive report and designed plans to reduce crime and increase safety.
Providing access to opportunities for residents was a hallmark of our work at NYCHA. We created the Office of Resident Economic Empowerment and Sustainability (REES) in 2009 out of the belief that workforce training and jobs are the most certain way for our families to advance economically. By facilitating nearly 7,000 job placements with NYCHA and its external vendors – totaling about $35 million in compensation for residents hired by NYCHA and $25 million for residents hired by NYCHA’s vendors – we played a big part in helping NYCHA families enhance their economic standing. The Robin Hood Foundation has invested about $4 million in the NYCHA Resident Training Academy so far, which has set the stage for Building Skills NY, a creative public/private partnership, to train and hire NYCHA residents for private sector real estate construction projects. And thanks to an investment by the City that will expand the Jobs-Plus program to a total of 23 NYCHA developments, more than 4,400 residents in all five boroughs will have access to job placement and long-term career paths.
Although economic opportunity is vital, it is not sufficient alone. For that reason, we connected our communities to opportunities beyond employment by forging partnerships with many public, private, and philanthropic organizations. Since its founding in 2010, the Office of Public/Private Partnerships has helped NYCHA leverage more than $50 million in funding, donations, and services from more than 150 partners to enrich the lives of residents of all ages. In 2012, we were awarded a Choice Neighborhoods Planning Grant for Mott Haven in the Bronx as part of President Obama’s plan to revitalize neighborhoods through community coalitions. Our work with the Harlem Children’s Zone to build a new home for the Promise Academy K-12 public charter school and community facility on the grounds of St. Nicholas Houses will deliver resources for our residents and their communities for years to come. In fact, more than 100 residents were hired as a result of this endeavor, and children from St. Nicholas Houses make up one-third of the Academy’s first class of students. And in partnership with Harlem RBI, we are bringing a K-8 charter school, 88 affordable apartments, and not-for-profit offices to Washington Houses, investing approximately $80 million in public and private funds to revitalize this community.
To further enrich the lives of our residents and their neighbors, we successfully delivered four long-promised community centers, investing $40 million total. These “hubs” of enrichment – the Ingersoll, Gerard Carter, Johnson, and Polo Grounds Community Centers – now provide a variety of services and programs offered by our partners. For example, Johnson Community Center boasts an innovative early childhood learning and health initiative sponsored by the Children’s Museum of Manhattan that is dedicated to putting public housing’s youngest residents on a road to lifelong learning and improved health through reductions in obesity and related diseases.
Affordable housing is a platform for success, a way for New Yorkers to gain stability and build better lives for themselves. That is why we were committed to Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to build or preserve 165,000 units of affordable housing throughout the City. NYCHA contributed to the plan by creating 1,557 affordable apartments. Additionally, 578 apartments are under construction and almost 2,100 are in development, along with another 100 apartments that will provide supportive housing for seniors at Van Dyke Houses. This year, we worked with a range of stakeholders to refine a proposal to lease land at eight developments for the creation of affordable and market-rate housing that would generate more than $700 million – enough funding to bring all 10,000 units at these developments to a state of good repair.
In a city as rich with history as ours, preservation is key to increasing affordable housing. With that in mind, we made sure to accelerate the full redevelopment of Randolph Houses in Harlem and Prospect Plaza in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. True to our promise, construction on both will begin in 2014, with funding from a creative mix of public and private sector sources, including tax credits and tax-exempt bonds. These two projects alone will produce 227 public housing and 439 affordable apartments, two community facilities, and a retail store.
As more and more seniors are aging in place, NYCHA has pursued a range of strategies to look after their needs. This includes the 78-unit Council Towers VI and the recently completed 114-unit Riverway Apartments, which feature not only brand-new homes with senior-friendly amenities, but also social services that support their lifestyles. With our assistance, many former NYCHA residents made these developments their home, most of whom were living in apartments with more rooms than they needed. This shows that we can both compassionately right-size senior apartments and serve other families in need.
During my tenure, we experienced some real tests as well. Hurricane Sandy dealt a serious blow to many of our buildings and residents. Despite the unprecedented challenges, NYCHA employees worked around the clock to make repairs, restore critical services, and connect residents to vital resources. Our ability to respond to an emergency of this magnitude is also a testament to our management expertise. Recruiting Cecil House to join NYCHA as General Manager was one of my smartest decisions, as he has engaged all levels of staff in enhancing our operations during the storm and every day since his arrival. After the storm, we gathered feedback from our stakeholders, including residents and staff, which led to many agency-wide improvements and a variety of events and resources that enhanced residents’ emergency preparedness.
Alongside these efforts, our “Green Agenda” to promote a more sustainable, environmentally friendly NYCHA increases efficiency while improving resident quality of life. We took many steps to reduce our carbon footprint, such as installing more than 200,000 compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL) that reduce greenhouse gases by about 8,000 tons per year. We also financed our first Energy Performance Contract (EPC) in over a decade, raising $18 million to retrofit our buildings and reduce our energy expenses. Since 2009, Green City Force has helped us build a greener NYCHA, providing young residents with training, educational, and leadership opportunities related to the green economy. In fact, we launched an urban farm at Red Hook Houses – the first of its kind – with their assistance.
Despite our many successes, a lack of federal funding continues to seriously challenge NYCHA’s ability to fulfill its mission. But thanks to the hard work of 12,000 dedicated employees in implementing these bold – and not always easy – plans, NYCHA is on firmer footing for the future. Residents, along with staff, are the heart of this vibrant institution, and I know that their support will help NYCHA continue forward in the pursuit of transformation. Every one of the tough choices we made was to ensure the preservation of public housing and ensure better service to current and future residents alike.
Not only is NYCHA important to those who call it home, but it is also an economic engine, indispensable to its neighborhoods and the City as a whole. Indeed, an economic report released this year confirmed that NYCHA generates billions of dollars in direct and indirect economic activity, and supports 30,000 jobs, annually. It also found that residents are a vital part of the City’s workforce, at NYCHA and beyond – this is certainly not news to us. We also know that NYCHA has a tremendously important legacy to uphold; together, we have shown that the best years of public housing can lie ahead.
Continued bold actions and fearlessness will be required to ensure NYCHA achieves its full potential. I will always be a fierce advocate for public housing, and everything that I have gained and learned from working with staff and residents to advance this mission will be a part of me forever. Thank you for providing me that honor.
John B. Rhea