Minnesota public housing activists warn of NYCHA’s new ‘Czar of Privatization’

The Ocean Bay apartments in Far Rockaway. Photo via Wikimedia Commons/Tdorante10.

The Ocean Bay apartments in Far Rockaway. Photo via Wikimedia Commons/Tdorante10.

By Phineas Rueckert 

Gregory Russ won’t start his new job at NYCHA until August. But the man tapped to head the underfunded, asbestos- and lead-paint-ridden public housing authority has already ruffled some feathers — and reopened a debate about the creep of private money into public housing — before even sitting down at his new office. 

After The City broke the news of Russ’s nomination, a group of public housing activists halfway across the country released a statement calling Russ the ‘czar of privatization.’ The advocates criticize Russ’ embrace of an Obama-era program called Rental Assistance Demonstration, which shifts management and operations of public housing to private landlords. 

The group, which calls itself the Defend Glendale & Public Housing Coalition, warned of Russ’s “track record of dismantling public housing,” as well as his plans “to use a national pro-gentrification map called Opportunity Atlas Mapping to end public housing and destroy Black and Brown communities in Minneapolis.” 

In conversations with the Eagle, public housing activists in Minnesota and New York said they were concerned about Russ’s nomination to the post because they fear further disinvestment in low-income and immigrant communities as private developers focus their revitalization efforts on public housing units that sit on valuable land, and not NYCHA’s most disregarded properties.

They’re mobilizing quickly in advance of what could end up being a protracted battle: Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to convert 62,000 units to RAD in the next 10 years as part of his so-called NYCHA 2.0 campaign to address NYCHA’s current $31.8 billion funding shortfall for repairs and maintenance. A conversion of that scale would represent about one-third of the city’s public housing stock — and Russ, who pushed RAD transfers in housing authorities in Minneapolis and Cambridge, MA, will likely play a key role in the shift. 

‘He’s going to destroy public housing’

For Ladan Yusuf, the lead organizer of DG&PHC, the campaign against Gregory Russ is personal. 

Yusuf told the Eagle that Russ aggressively silenced Minneapolis public housing residents and housing activists while pushing to convert public housing units to the RAD program during his two-and-a-half-year stint there. At one point, she said, Russ “got in front of my face, became very aggressive with me and said, ‘We will end public housing.’” 

“He’s going to destroy public housing,” Yusuf added. “He will go after anybody and their mother to do it.”

In a June 18 press release, DG&PHC said that Russ “allowed public housing leaders to be bullied, intimidated, physically attacked, racially profiled and attempted to arrest them.” The group also criticized Russ for bringing on a senior advisor from NYCHA to lead the RAD conversion, who was later accused of ethics violations. 

In New York, public housing advocacy groups have also pushed back against the RAD conversion program, though not against Russ individually.  

“Public housing should be fully funded by the government,” Gabriel Strachota, an organizer with the tenant advocacy group Community Voices Heard, told Shelterforce in October 2018. “If public housing residents were valued, and if public housing was valued we would see the political will to fully fund public housing before we begin to look for outside funding.”

Traditional funding for public housing has been dramatically reduced nationwide in recent decades. The 2011 budget sequester led to deeper cuts to federally-funded housing assistance, including a $1.5 billion cut to tenant-based Section 8 housing

Louis Flores is an organizer with Fight For NYCHA, an advocacy group that formed last winter and is now rallying to save Chelsea’s Robert Fulton Houses from demolition. Flores, a Queens resident, began organizing after he was evicted from his rent-regulated apartment last year. 

“I know how the free market system works,” he said. “I was displaced; I lost everything; and I’m here to fight so that other people don’t go through this.”

He said he is worried that private investment in public housing units would not be evenly distributed citywide. 

“No sane private sector landlord is going to buy into a building that is going to be subject to lead paint litigation, that is going to be subject to mold litigation,” Flores said. “You can always sell the better condition buildings, and that means that the buildings in most need of repair in NYCHA are not going to get the funding they need under RAD.” 

‘Public housing will remain public, period.’

NYCHA, for its part, insists that hiring Russ does not represent a move toward privatization. 

“Greg Russ is a seasoned public housing veteran who has the skills and experience to deliver for NYCHA residents,” said mayor’s office spokesperson Marcy Miranda in an email. “Public housing will remain public, period.” 

Sunia Zaterman, the executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, one of the groups that helped design the RAD program, also said the housing will remain public. 

“If [activists] are referring to the Rental Assistance Development program, that is a strategy to preserve public housing and to maintain it, to upgrade it, to improve it, and to continue to make it available to low-income families,” Zaterman said. 

Tenant protections under RAD include “right of return” — which ensures temporarily displaced residents will be guaranteed a return to their homes if significant repairs force them to move; subsidized rents that remain under 30 percent of residents’ income; and vouchers to help  residents transition out of public housing, if they desire.  

So far, just under 1,400 units have been transferred over to private management through the RAD program — all of them in Far Rockaway, Queens. The $560 million project to revamp the Ocean Bay Apartments at Beach Channel Drive was hailed by local leaders as a major achievement.

U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz and Councilmember Donovan Richards praised the renovations to individual apartments; weatherproofing measures, including a new storm wall and solar panels; and development of community spaces and resources, such as basketball courts and community gardens. 

Just over 30,000 Queens residents live in public housing — far fewer than in Brooklyn and the Bronx. 

Meeks, who represents New York's 5th congressional district and leads the Queens County Democratic Party, called the Ocean Bay Apartments “restored and better than ever” in the wake of damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Katz hailed the initiative as an “innovative and energy-efficient project.” Richards called it a “true victory for the entire Rockaway peninsula.”

Residents of the apartment complex will not be required to pay more than 30 percent of their incomes in rent, in accordance with Section 8 regulations, according to a press release on the New York State Homes and Community Renewal website

The future of RAD

Whether RAD will significantly shift the landscape of public housing in New York remains to be seen. 

Sue Popkin, a researcher at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, cautioned against privatization fears, while adding that whatever happens with NYCHA, it probably won’t happen as quickly as either the mayor’s office or the activists are saying. 

“It sounds scarier than it is,” she said. “It’s just money; it’s neither good nor bad in and of itself.”

Ultimately, she said, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has only okayed 410,000 RAD conversions nationwide and New York City would have to “get in line with everybody else.” 

This article previously misstated Rental Assistance Demonstration as Rental Assistance Development. In addition, Marcy Miranda is a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio, not NYCHA. The Eagle regrets these errors.