For de Blasio and Cuomo, a Tug of War Over City Housing Authority
Posted February 16, 2018 10:08 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — The conditions that left hundreds of thousands of New York City Housing Authority residents without heat and hot water during a record cold snap, as ancient boilers struggled to keep up with falling temperatures, were decades in the making.
No one disputes that.
But over the past few days, the question of how best to solve the crisis has become a familiar game of political football featuring Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio.
On Thursday, Councilman Robert E. Cornegy Jr. of Brooklyn held a news conference to formally call on New York officials to declare a state emergency so new boilers could be purchased and installed more quickly. The governor’s chief counsel, Alphonso David, offered a response that, while noncommittal, nonetheless seemed to chide the city.
David questioned whether the Housing Authority had the “ability to actually perform the necessary repairs,” and agreed with Cornegy’s assessment that conditions were intolerable.
On Friday, de Blasio weighed in during his weekly appearance with Brian Lehrer on WNYC.
“I’ve been mayor for four years; there’s been ample opportunity for the governor or anyone on his team to say let’s constructively help you fix the problems in public housing,” de Blasio said. “I’ve never gotten that phone call.”
Over the past four years, the mayor and the governor, both Democrats, have made an art form of squabbling over issues, even when they largely share the same view. This week, the two argued over the timeline to close the Rikers Island jail complex.
They continue to fight over how much the city should pay to help rehabilitate the subway system, another institution in crisis.
As for the Housing Authority, often called NYCHA, de Blasio has committed $82 million to replace the 39 boilers that heat 104 buildings with the worst heating problems. On Friday, he said he was open to a “constructive way to speed up contracting” but had doubts that Cuomo was interested in anything more than political sparring.
“If the state really wants to sit down with us and say how can we play a constructive role in addressing some of the challenges in NYCHA that are decades old, we would welcome that conversation, we would try to work together,” de Blasio said.
“But if the state’s trying to score political points, and deal in simplistic ideas that are not really going to help the people of the public housing buildings in our city who are 400,000 New Yorkers, you know, then let’s be honest about what’s really going on.”
The problems at the Housing Authority have been exacerbated, if not caused, by decades of federal disinvestment, the mayor reiterated on Lehrer’s show.
The state has promised the city money to help repair the problems at the authority in the past, but has failed to deliver. In 2015, the state allocated $100 million for playgrounds, security and appliances. So far, the city has only received $50 million of that money, according to Olivia Lapeyrolerie, a spokeswoman for de Blasio.
In 2017, the state promised $200 million that the city wanted to use to repair boilers and elevators but none of that money has yet been received, Lapeyrolerie said.
David, in an interview Friday, said the $200 million has not been delivered because there are concerns about the authority’s management capabilities.
The Housing Authority has come under scrutiny for its failure to conduct lead paint inspections for four years and then filing false reports stating that the inspections were completed.
“The issue is not more funding. The issue is adequate and appropriate management,” David said. The state wants information “to make sure the money will be utilized the way we expect it to be utilized,” he added.
Lapeyrolerie says the city submitted a “detailed plan” in November of how it planned to use the money.
Councilman Ritchie Torres of the Bronx, the chairman of Oversight and Investigations Committee and former chaiman of the Public Housing Committee, said the city, state and federal government all need to step up to help.
“The political drama is ultimately a distraction from the challenges facing NYCHA,” Torres said in an interview. What the authority needs, he said, is “more funding, better managers and better flexibility when it comes to procurement.”
Fixing the management issues at the authority falls on de Blasio, yet Cuomo could make it easier for the authority to buy and install things such as boilers that would improve life for public housing residents, Torres said.
“NYCHA’s problems are so overwhelming that it requires funding from every level of government,” Torres added.
David said he expects to continue discussions with the City Council next week.
The political quarreling frustrates Afua Atta-Mensah, executive director of Community Voices Heard, an advocacy group consisting primarily of minority women and low-income families. More than half the group’s members in New York City live in Housing Authority apartments.
“I don’t want to opine as to why they would rather bicker than do the people’s work,” Atta-Mensah said in an interview. “We need a four-year plan on how we are going to save public housing.”
Community Voices Heard has called on the city to invest $2 billion to fix all the boilers across NYCHA. The Legal Aid Society, which has threatened to sue the city if they don’t rebate up to $15 million in rent for tenants left without heat and hot water during the winter, says the city needs to commit to a $1 billion per year capital plan for the authority.
“We are clear this has been 30 years in the making,” Atta-Mensah said about federal disinvestment in the authority. “But the vast majority of people in public housing work. They are city employees who pay rent and want basic things like heat, hot water and ceilings that don’t fall in on them.”