Only Transparency and Oversight Can Save NYCHA

This Wednesday, March 6, 2013 photo shows the apartment building at 1475 Madison Avenue in New York. Officials want to demoli
This Wednesday, March 6, 2013 photo shows the apartment building at 1475 Madison Avenue in New York. Officials want to demolish existing areas on public housing properties _ a baseball field, a community center, a parking lot _ and build more than half a dozen brand-new luxury apartment complexes. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

When John Rhea became chairman of the New York City Housing Authority in 2009, Mayor Bloomberg proclaimed the beginning of "a new era of transparency and agency responsiveness to improving resident and community quality of life."

Over the following four years, NYCHA was plagued by inefficiency and incompetence; the repair backlog grew to over 420,000; and the agency, by failing to make much-needed repairs, jeopardized the health and welfare of tens-of-thousands of its residents, including children and seniors.

NYCHA is charged with providing safe, decent and affordable housing to low-income New Yorkers in more than 300 public housing developments.

Unlike private landlords, who are subject to oversight by a city agency to make repairs on a strict timeline, NYCHA polices itself. So, while the agency's website features heartwarming stories of New Yorkers who have found a comfortable, safe home in a NYCHA apartment, many NYCHA tenants tell a very different story. Too many tenants have had to wait years for repairs to be made, as conditions in their apartments grew worse and more dangerous. Requests to repair leaking pipes and roofs have been ignored or placed on the back burner, allowing toxic black mold to take root in NYCHA apartments, endangering tenants' health and safety.

Last year, it was reported that NYCHA had failed since 2009 to spend nearly $1 billion in federal funds that should have been used "to repair leaky roofs, broken elevators, moldy walls and busted playground equipment..." And two reports on the agency, one internal and one by an outside consultant, illustrate the incompetence that plagues the agency and presents a very real threat to tenants' quality of life, health and safety.

The Boston Consulting Group's report, completed at a cost of $10 million in taxpayer funds, highlighted the agency's many problems, including several layers of unnecessary management bureaucracy, and a mismanaged network of warehouses and storerooms, filled with millions of dollars worth of spare parts and supplies that were not properly documented.

The report also noted that while the agency has a powerful software package for its computer systems, it neglected to use it to track repair requests.

It is a lack of transparency and oversight that has allowed a culture of neglect to flourish within NYCHA.

Earlier this year, Chairman Rhea and the Mayor announced that they would "virtually eliminate" the backlog of needed repairs, saying, "Today marks the beginning of the end of this problem."

Three weeks ago, the mayor and NYCHA announced that 73,000 repairs had been made in a two-month period.

While I applaud this announcement, I, along with many others, am somewhat skeptical of the quality and continued timeline of these repairs given NYCHA's history of failure, neglect and broken promises. I believe that the transparency Mayor Bloomberg spoke of when he appointed John Rhea is exactly what is needed to ensure that NYCHA is adequately serving its tenants.

It's time for NYCHA to implement a public, online database that tracks all repair requests and reports of repairs completed. The system should allow individuals to track their personal repair tickets, comment on the repair work, and allow the rest of us to see that NYCHA is in fact on track to complete needed repairs by year's end, as promised.

And, the agency should have oversight just like all the private landlords across the city. The city's Housing, Preservation and Development agency (HPD) should -- just as it does with private landlords -- inspect all requests for repair, post them on HPD's website, and hold NYCHA accountable for their timely repair. NYCHA tenants deserve this equal treatment and protection.

Full and complete transparency and oversight may be the only tool to guarantee that NYCHA is addressing the culture that has hampered its operations and jeopardized its tenants. And, it will help us track the agency's progress in making all the promised repairs.

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