National News

10 Days Left, but No Decision on Public Housing Monitor

Posted May 22, 2018 11:29 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo stepped into the crisis at the New York City Housing Authority in April, he ordered the appointment of an independent monitor to oversee emergency repairs at many of the authority’s 325 public housing developments. The mayor, the speaker of the City Council and a representative for residents were given until June 1 to choose the monitor.

But less than two weeks before the deadline, the parties have met only twice. According to tenant representatives, there have been no discussions about specific candidates for the position, which is expected to oversee efforts to improve living conditions for the more than 400,000 people who live in public housing. The independent monitor will be in charge of potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency repairs that will be financed by the city, which had no legal obligation to fund NYCHA before the executive order.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has condemned the emergency order for its potential effect on city finances, and now city officials are racing to find a way out of paying for emergency repairs at NYCHA, which relies mostly on dwindling federal subsidies.

At a meeting Tuesday, city officials said they wanted the independent monitor to oversee spending only the $550 million that the state has already pledged to NYCHA, said Elie Hecht, the director of At-Risk Community Services, a group of pro bono lawyers representing NYCHA residents in the negotiations.

“They don’t appear to be overly interested in agreeing to the selection of a manager that could potentially put the city on the hook for large sums of money,” Hecht said after he left the meeting at City Hall. Hecht said officials representing the mayor and the speaker asked tenant representatives to agree to their proposition, even though the executive order does not appear to provide such leeway.

Potential candidates for the job have not been discussed, Hecht said. If the parties fail to agree on an individual by the deadline, the decision falls to the city comptroller, Scott M. Stringer, who will have 14 days to select a monitor.

Olivia Lapeyrolerie, a spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio, declined to comment because “discussions on the monitor selection process are ongoing.”

Jennifer Fermino, a spokeswoman for Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker, said the council “is working with all sides to meet the deadline.”

Dani Lever, the governor’s press secretary, said he terms of the order cannot be renegotiated. “The language in the executive order is crystal clear, and the responsibilities of the parties are outlined in it,” she said.

The governor ordered a monitor appointed after years of problems at NYCHA came to a head over the last several months, with revelations in November that the authority falsified paperwork related to lead paint inspections and widespread heat and hot-water outages last winter.

NYCHA’s beleaguered chairwoman, Shola Olatoye, announced her resignation on April 10, a week after Cuomo signed the emergency declaration. Olatoye, however, has continued to lead the agency as she prepares to hand off to Stanley Brezenoff, who de Blasio selected as interim chairman. Brezenoff, 80, a seasoned public servant whom the mayor has relied on as a fixer of troubled government entities, will begin his duties on June 1.

Brezenoff will have to work with a monitor endowed with broad powers over the housing authority and in charge of fixing a wide range of conditions that present a threat to the health and safety of tenants. The individual would be “authorized to exercise all of the power provided to NYCHA” and would be exempted from procurement and contracting rules, according to the executive order.

A recent report from the Independent Budget Office said that the order for a monitor has created “the potential that city expenses on NYCHA could skyrocket” by “millions if not billions of dollars.”

The independent monitor is unlikely to be the only outside oversight for NYCHA.

The city has been negotiating with the federal government over an expansive, two-year investigation into NYCHA’s management by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. De Blasio has said a deal is expected soon, and the governor’s office hinted earlier this month that the repercussions could be severe.

Alphonso David, the governor’s counsel, said in a statement, “Depending on the conclusion of that investigation, the city may face significant financial penalties and have new management reforms applied to the system.”

The U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment.