Reforming NYCHA in Queens and Citywide
by Scott Stringer
Aug 16, 2012 | 3102 views | 0 0 comments | 24 24 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The New York Housing Authority is the largest housing authority in the nation and home to more than 625,000 New Yorkers, a population roughly the size of Boston.

With 22 complexes in Queens, it houses 17,125 individual apartments in the borough. For years, the Authority has been a valuable source of affordable housing - not just in Queens but citywide.

Much attention has recently been focused on the need for City Hall to clean up NYCHA, and with good reason. There is no legitimate excuse for tenant repairs that take years, or for residents to live in fear because of inadequate security, especially when cash is available to make improvements.

But to truly fix NYCHA we need to start someplace else – in Albany, where State legislation must be drafted to give Mayor Bloomberg the tools he needs to manage NYCHA more effectively.

Some have argued that Mayor Bloomberg should replace NYCHA’s four board members, but here’s the reality - he can’t. Not at the moment. Under current State law, he can only replace the Chair. The other three board members are all appointed to fixed, multi-year terms and can only be removed for cause. And some of those terms aren’t due to expire until 2016, long after Bloomberg will be gone from City Hall.

In other words, NYCHA is not truly accountable to anyone today. It’s an agency without any clear lines of authority, overseen by board members who can’t be removed and are paid in excess of $187,000 a year to pursue pet projects and attend weekly meetings (an exception being the new tenant member added in 2011, who is paid $250 a month).

It’s a management set-up that has remained largely unchanged since 1958, when Mayor Robert Wagner established a paid, three-member board as part of a shake-up that was driven, remarkably, by fear of Communists within the agency. Clearly, the time has come to bring NYCHA into the 21st century.

What’s needed is legislation in Albany that will make NYCHA more accountable, more efficient and more responsive to taxpayers and tenants in the five boroughs.

We should start by merging the positions of Board chairman and general manager, like the Metropolitan Transportation Authority does, to create a single post with clear responsibility for day-to-day management of NYCHA operations.

We should create a seven-person board whose members would all be appointed by the mayor. Research by my office found that seven members is in line with other state and local public authorities and, in general, allows for a board that is still lean but big enough to reflect a diversity of backgrounds and expertise.

Two of the board members should be NYCHA tenants. NYCHA likes to spend millions of dollars on consultants to find out what’s wrong with NYCHA, but I say ask a tenant. They’ll tell you exactly what’s wrong for free. The tenant members should be given short, two-year terms to safeguard their independence, but the mayor should be able to hire and fire the rest of the board at will.

One of the board members should be the deputy mayor with oversight of NYCHA, ensuring that the mayor’s office stays involved in real-time with all developments arising from NYCHA board activities.

A structure like this would make clear exactly who is in charge of NYCHA every day, and give taxpayers someone to hold accountable every four years – the mayor, and no one else.

And here’s a key point: no one except the chair would be paid a salary under my proposal. NYCHA is the only housing authority in the state that pays board members a full salary, a needless expense that has to end.

We need to restore the NYCHA board to the original vision first laid out by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia nearly 80 years ago, who in the beginning created a diverse, volunteer board of experts whose only incentive was doing a good job for the people they served.

And we need to give Mayor Bloomberg, and his successors, a management structure that is clear, transparent and effective. That would be good for Queens’ tenants, good for NYCHA and good for New York.

Scott Stringer is the borough president of Manhattan.

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