Living the Mitchell-Lama dream
Public housing was once the egalitarian dream of urban planners in post-war New York City, uniting people from all walks of life in a social experiment that prospered. Today, these developments are under attack from systematic neglect and deliberate sabotage by predatory developers looking to cash-in.
As a pillar of the city’s most critical affordable housing stock, Mitchell-Lama is in crisis. We hear it every day in community meetings, on the streets across Brooklyn, and on social media; and we see it in buy-outs, displacement and rising rents. This essential housing supply faces threats including conversion to market-rate housing and a lack of upkeep.
New York City was built on a thriving middle class that, in the middle of the 20th century, came home to a newly erected Mitchell-Lama community. Brooklyn is home to 35 such developments, with more than 18,000 housing units, ranging from Atlantic Terminal I and II in Fort Greene to Starrett City in East New York. These developments can also be found in Brownsville, a neighborhood with the highest concentration of public housing in the United States.
The statistics reveal an alarming trend. Since 2005, New York City has lost nearly 33,000 of its Mitchell-Lama rental stock and, since 1990, eight developments in Brooklyn alone, totaling almost 4,300 units of affordable housing, have left the program, according to Tenants & Neighbors. Many of these units have been converted to market-rate apartments, while more than 1,000 have entered into programs providing vouchers.
For too long, the Mitchell-Lama portfolio has lacked funds for regular maintenance and oversight, and many of the boards overseeing these buildings have run amok, playing their own rules while ignoring the needs of residents who generally do not participate in the voting process. Instead of safeguarding the integrity of the Mitchell-Lama program, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and the state’s Department of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR) have allowed these select boards to defy the rules regarding apartment allocation, contracting and financial reporting. This needs to change, for the sake of those living under these conditions, and to restore accountability and integrity in the system.
We need a robust approach to both preserve the physical condition of Mitchell-Lama housing and ensure transparency in the system’s governance. Both DHCR and HPD must take a more hands-on approach to ensuring that resources are being allocated in the right places. The laissez-faire attitude by these agencies is not working – residents need accountability and oversight. If the city has the authority and willpower to take over land through eminent domain, there is no reason that that authority cannot be harnessed by taking a more active and meaningful role in managing Mitchell-Lama housing.
One way to do that is to have HPD and DHCR enforce reforms in the structures of the building management boards. At the moment, many board members are not allowed to speak with the residents they represent. Instead, these select boards are stuffed with people with no vested interest in the community and, at worst, aim to privatize units for their own financial gain regardless of the impact on other residents who do not have the same luxury of privatizing their property. The system that chooses board members must be changed so that these individuals truly represent the concerns and views of residents.
HPD and DHCR must provide better management education and training for board members for them to understand the importance of affordability and maintenance. Both agencies must also take a more active role in supporting this housing stock to protect residents from rent increases and unfair maintenance charges.
The New York City Council must also play a role in these measures by holding regular oversight hearings on Mitchell-Lama developments. In February 2016, Brooklyn Borough Hall hosted, in partnership with the New York City Council Committee on Housing, the first oversight hearing on Mitchell-Lama in seven years. More than 400 people turned out for the hearing, underscoring the pent-up demand for answers and need for accountability from agencies. In addition, the city must provide support to housing developments that have a significant senior citizen population. Older residents should not have to be forced out of their homes, because they cannot afford to downgrade to a smaller unit that is affordable.
The state must also do its part to ensure fairness. The recently announced audit from the Office of the New York State Comptroller – which found several Mitchell-Lama buildings bungling waiting list requirements by letting some apartments sit vacant for as many as five years – is a step in the right direction.
In response to the Mitchell-Lama crisis, we are proud to regularly host the Mitchell-Lama Task Force, which educates residents across Brooklyn about their housing rights. Many tenants are unaware of the protections and services available to them to contest unfair decisions and practices. This task force brings together activists, housing practitioners, and legal experts to raise awareness about how to successfully advocate for residents and Mitchell-Lama communities. That’s exactly the kind of unified front that is needed to ensure this precious public housing stock is maintained for generations to come.
Eric L. Adams is Brooklyn borough president. Dealice Fuller is chair of Brooklyn Community Board 1, which encompasses Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn.