Pols find the SOUND & the fury within New York City housing

Daniel L. Squadron

July 16, 2009

By Errol Louis of the Daily News

There's good news for the more than 400,000 residents of public housing: an unusually broad alliance of dozens of city, state and federal officials have joined with community activists in a concerted effort to cure the fiscal crisis that has crippled the New York City Housing Authority.

The core of the effort, called Save Our Underfunded NYCHA Developments, or SOUND, is a campaign to direct about $284 million annually to the agency starting next year - enough to end the Housing Authority's perennial $200 million deficits and pay for maintenance and repairs, including the notoriously breakdown-prone elevators

It's about time.

New York's grand, worthy experiment in providing affordable rental housing for a chunk of our working class has suffered from deliberate neglect in recent years.

While most of the NYCHA's 344 developments get funding from the federal Housing and Urban Development Department, 21 developments that were originally built by the city and state have become budget orphans.

They are ineligible for full federal funding, but get sporadic, inadequate support from the local governments that created them. To make ends meet, the Housing Authority stretches its federal funding to include the nonfederal projects, creating yearly shortfalls.

"The systematic de-funding of the Housing Authority over the last 30 years is a disgrace and a fundamental failure of our government," says state Sen. Eric Schneiderman of Manhattan, one of several dozen pols who joined SOUND.

The group pledges to make sure the next state budget includes $64 million for state-built Housing Authority developments, and will fight for a city commitment of $30 million to cover 6,000 city-built units.

SOUND is the brainchild of two East Side pols, state Sen. Daniel Squadron and Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, who aren't usually associated with the politics of public housing but got fed up with the flood of problems from the projects in their districts, including the Jacob Riis, Lillian Wald and Baruch houses.

They rounded up elected officials like Harlem Assemblyman Keith Wright and City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, who have held countless hearings and demonstrations in support of the Housing Authority over the years. State Senate President Malcolm Smith is onboard, along with too many members of Congress, City Council members and state reps to list here.

A group of topnotch housing activists also are part of SOUND, including Damaris Reyes of Good Old Lower East Side, Victor Bach of the Community Service Society and Reggie Bowman of the Citywide Council of NYCHA Tenant Association Presidents. So is Greg Floyd, president of Teamsters Local 237, the union to which most Housing Authority line employees belong.

In addition to $94 million in city and state funding, the coalition will go after $100 million in federal stimulus money for weatherization of Housing Authority developments. And the group will press City Hall to end the practice of charging the authority more than $70 million a year for police and sanitation services.

All told, that's $264 million for public housing being demanded now, nearly a full year in advance of the fiscal year 2011 budgets.

These powerful friends of public housing have an ally in Washington: HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, the former city housing commissioner, who this week delivered a passionate speech on the importance of public housing at the National Press Club.

Add to this fortunate constellation of players the dynamic new Housing Authority chairman, investment banker John Rhea.

After many frustrating years of scattered, fragmented efforts to cure the Housing Authority's ills, it looks like we might have the right players in the right places - and the political will needed to fix one of our city's most important agencies.