By Sabina Mollot
Last week, the mayor touted a pilot program in which the city partnered with private developers to improve conditions of NYCHA buildings, which, in recent months, have only drawn headlines highlighting the city’s lack of ability to deal with the crumbling buildings, freezing apartments and even lead paint.
However, based on the results of a study conducted by Citizens Housing & Planning Council, a nonprofit research group that investigates housing policy in New York City, the program that transferred management of six Section 8 properties, including Campos Plaza 1 on East 12th Street and Avenue C, to a public-private partnership has been successful in transforming the neglected buildings. Repairs are being conducted far more swiftly, upgrades have been getting made and residents have reported feeling safer.
While announcing a $400 million expansion to the program for 21 buildings, Mayor Bill de Blasio stated that the results at Campos and other participating properties were “the shape of things to come” at NYCHA. The mayor spoke alongside the president of the tenants association at NYCHA’s Campos Plaza 1, DeReese Huff.
“Everything is updated,” the mayor said. “It’s a place people can be very proud of. It’s a place that now has a strong foundation and whenever there is a need for repair, those repairs are being made quickly to keep it strong. That is the beauty of this model.”
This week, Town & Village visited Campos Plaza 1 to speak with Huff, who echoed the mayor’s sentiment that things really are that different.
The partnership was cemented in December 2014, and, Huff recalled, work began a month later at Campos Plaza 1, which includes two buildings out of four in the complex and is home to 269 people. The buildings are located on East 12th and 13th Streets between Avenues B and C. The partnership, Triborough Preservation Partners, consists of the New York City Housing Authority, L+M Development Partners and Preservation Development Partners.
Since the private landlords’ involvement, said Huff, the property has had new roofs put in, new boilers, new windows, a new electrical system, new facades, renovated kitchens, new intercoms, new smoke alarms and a newly landscaped lawn with a children’s play area. The property’s five elevators, which were badly damaged during Superstorm Sandy, are in the midst of being replaced.
Huff was especially pleased about changes made in the lobby at 635 East 12th Street, which has much more lighting than it used to. There is also a nearby room for the tenants association’s use and a currently papered up storefront. It was supposed to become a laundry facility, though due to a lack of a chimney that won’t be happening. Still, Huff said the present look is still a big improvement, considering the entrance used to be covered in bars.
“Which made us feel like animals,” she said.
As for the additional lighting, it was included at the request of police. Crime, reported Huff, has solidly been on the decline since then, though this is also due to the fact that new security officers have been brought in.
“We feel a lot safer,” said Huff. Apartments, she added, are warmer during the winter and now have gas heating. “The heat is 100 percent. With NYCHA, we always had cold water.” This is also the first time the buildings’ intercoms have functioned in 15 years, she said.
The new improvements even inspired Huff, who used to work as a personal chef but now lives on disability due to an injury she sustained in 2001, to make some extra upgrades to her apartment with her own money, like new floors. Because of this, she said some residents incorrectly believed she was getting better treatment under the new management than they were. “I invested in myself,” she said. She also heard some neighbors say the kitchens looked cheap, but she disagrees.
“If you allow your kid to tear it down it’s going to look cheap,” she said, adding that the partnership invested “like $80,000 in every apartment.”
The changes aren’t just cosmetic, though. Huff said security responds quickly to complaints about that things like drug or gang activity, which came to a head in 2011 when a teenager, Keith Salgado, was gunned down in a courtyard.
“Gang violence has gone down a lot,” said Huff. “And what they don’t have a handle on they throw to police. That’s what I love about (the partnership) as well.”
Meanwhile, like any commercial landlord, the new management is no pushover when it comes to tenants who don’t pay. Huff said she’s aware of about seven evictions for nonpayment of rent. Apparently, some residents thought they didn’t have to pay back rent owed to NYCHA when the partnership took over. There was also a crackdown on residents who lied about their incomes or sub-let their apartments with some cases still pending. Some residents have also gotten sticker shock about the cost of air conditioning in electric bills after new units were installed. But Huff said she doesn’t understand why.
“They knew they had to pay the bill. We’ve been paying Con Edison since 1979,” she said.
But unlike with rent stabilized properties, at Section 8 properties, there are no major capital improvement rent increases for upgrades. Residents pay a third of their incomes in rent with the rest subsidized.
One improvement Huff said she would like to still be made is the installation of a sprinkler system for children to play in. While she doesn’t know if this will happen, the new management has offered some activities for children like a recent event with a magician, a photo booth and an appearance by Iron Man who took pictures with kids.
During a stroll around the grounds, Huff noted how the now lush-looking lawn in the courtyard used to be a place tenants did not dare to venture.
“Tenants stopped sitting back here years ago,” she said. “Everyone came back and sits here now. The multiple cultures of the different tenants enjoying the open land space — that’s what I love about this.”
Along with Campos Plaza 1, other NYCHA properties managed by Triborough are Bronxchester Houses, 510 East 156th St., Bronx; Saratoga Square, 55 Saratoga Ave., Brooklyn; and Milbank-Frawley, 1780 Madison Ave.; East 120th St., 438 East 120th St..; East 4th St. Rehab, 277 East 4th St., all in Manhattan.