Resident resistance to infill: competing ideas for the future of NYCHA
On a frigid evening in January 2019, the meeting room at the Stanley M. Isaacs Center, the community center for the public housing development of Holmes Towers, was packed. Community Board 8 in Manhattan had called a hearing on the pilot site’s plan to bring a 50‑story mixed-income building to “underutilized” land on the campus. New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) officials sat with the selected developer, Fetner Properties, on the left side of the room, while members of Community Board 8 sat up front (Figure 1).
© Valerie E. Stahl.
After a few words from local elected officials and brief presentations from the site’s architects and designers, at the front and center, residents were handed a mic. One after another, residents confronted NYCHA, the site’s private developer, and local leaders on the dire state of their homes, their disdain for the plan, and their misgivings about the engagement process. As one resident summed up, “This is our home, not your home... don’t come into our home and tell us what you’re giving us.” The meeting was one of the first opportunities for residents to publicly air grievances about the plan since NYCHA’s engagement processes had ended. Residents also explained how NYCHA ignored their repeated statements that they did not want the infill project, and expressed concern that the land lease offered to the private developers at the site would not even generate enough revenue to fund repairs on the campus. The meeting reflected the contradictions in future visions for NYCHA among its key stakeholders, including housing-authority officials, private developers, community-based allies, and perhaps most importantly, its residents.
Planning for change at a troubled housing authority
The infill plan at Holmes Towers is just one facet of a series of partial privatization measures at the housing authority. Until recently, NYCHA was considered the exception to the rule of diminished social housing in the United States, housing roughly half a million  poor and working-class New Yorkers—the vast majority of whom are people of color—in a city that has long faced a staggering affordability crisis (NYCHA 2020b). Yet, in recent years, a long history of state and federal retrenchment, paired with an aging housing stock and chronic mismanagement, has left NYCHA with a nearly $40 billion capital shortfall (Bach, Mironova and Waters 2020).
Since 2015, the mayor’s office and changing NYCHA leadership  have introduced multiple plans for its comprehensive transformation (NYCHA 2015, 2018, 2020a; NYCHA and Planning 2020). In addition to private development on its campuses through infill, NYCHA has also proposed converting nearly one third of NYCHA’s housing stock to private management under the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, the sale of transferable development rights (TDRs) to private developers, and the development of a public–private fund for public housing. These efforts mark a shift in the financing mechanisms sustaining NYCHA, where private dollars will be used to prop up both deficits in operations and capital improvements. As the private developer associated with the infill project at Holmes Towers proposed, “[NYCHA] buildings should be looked at more as individual profit-making centers, if you want to call it that way” (personal communication with Fetner Properties, January 2020).
While residents across the city have taken issue with multiple aspects of NYCHA’s transformation, residents at the four initially proposed infill sites launched considerable resistance to development on their campuses. The infill plan, which began under the name of NextGeneration Neighborhoods, proposes to offer 99‑year leases of “vacant or underutilized sites” on NYCHA land to private developers, who would build mixed-income apartment buildings between existing public housing (NYCHA 2015). The new projects reportedly would not displace existing residents, and the funds generated from the land lease would fund repairs in existing public housing.  Unsurprisingly, the proposed pilot sites were located in high-value, gentrified areas in Brooklyn and Manhattan (Putzier 2017). Since its launch, NextGeneration Neighborhoods, colloquially referred to as the infill plan, has faced considerable resistance from a vocal set of public-housing residents, who are living through the realities of NYCHA’s current crisis while expressing deep concerns about the future of their homes and communities.
The contested case for infill at Manhattan’s Holmes Towers
The Community Board 8 meeting was a turning point in the deliberations around a plan for infill development at Holmes Towers, where resistance to the project picked up new steam and direction right before the project was supposed to break ground in June 2019. After the meeting, three residents in the two impacted NYCHA developments  formed the Holmes–Isaacs Coalition to fight for the public funding of repairs for NYCHA. The coalition also organized to build broader power with residents impacted by a proposed infill plan in Chelsea (Manhattan) and other organizers working across the housing authority, including the Justice Center en El Barrio in Manhattan and the Justice for All Coalition, an advocacy group in Queens that contributed to the organizing win against Amazon’s proposed second headquarters in Long Island City.
As the Holmes–Isaacs Coalition organized, in the spring of 2019, the Manhattan borough president announced that her legal team would initiate a lawsuit challenging the use of a mayoral zoning override at the site (personal communication with Manhattan Borough President’s Office, March 2019). By June 2019, in the face of the lawsuit and resident opposition, NYCHA announced that they would withdraw the plans for development at the site, though it still remains unclear whether they will simply reissue a new plan led by the same developer with even fewer affordable units (Holliday Smith 2019; personal communication with Fetner Properties, January 2020).
© Valerie E. Stahl.
In spite of the uncertainty around the state of development at the campus, the Holmes–Isaacs Coalition continued its resistance to infill through a series of actions and a lawsuit against the housing authority. In October 2019, the coalition marched with dozens of community partners from Holmes Towers to Gracie Mansion, calling for an end to the privatization of NYCHA and infill at Holmes (Figure 2). In December 2019, Take Root Justice, an advocacy organization that provides legal and research support to grassroots movements and promotes racial and economic justice in New York City, filed a lawsuit against NYCHA on behalf of residents in Holmes Towers and Isaacs Houses. Citing the deplorable conditions on the campus, the lawsuit directed NYCHA to respond with expedient repairs (personal communication with resident and Holmes–Isaacs Coalition founder, February 2020). Residents and allies also criticized NYCHA’s approach to infill, with an organizer asserting at a press conference that “public housing is not for sale” and that the city should oppose any and all “partial privatization measures” (Figure 3).
© Valerie E. Stahl.
While the Holmes–Isaacs lawsuit works its way through the courts, the current pandemic has accelerated and exacerbated NYCHA’s need for reform. Mimicking the disparities from past disasters, by the time coronavirus arrived in New York City in March 2020, Holmes–Isaacs Coalition founders publicly expressed frustration at the housing authority’s failures to protect residents who were disproportionately dying from Covid‑19—a crisis that multiplied and deepened the long list of issues that residents had weathered in recent years (Coleman and Taylor 2020). Meanwhile, the Holmes–Isaacs Coalition and its allies continue to resist any iteration of infill while calling for immediate repairs to their campuses.
The future of NYCHA: the contestations and contradictions of privatizing public housing
Five years after NYCHA launched the NextGeneration plan, many residents’ visions for the future of their communities remain at odds with the priorities of the housing authority. Through their resistance, residents articulated principles around what they hoped—and feared—for the future of their homes and communities. This included resistance to privatization and fears of displacement, calls for resident expertise to drive plan-making, demands for accountability from NYCHA management, and promoting alternative, publicly funded visions for public housing’s future. For instance, residents and their community-based allies repeatedly pointed to line items and tax revenue ideas as potential funding sources. Before efforts to “Defund the NYPD” gained traction in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the local and national uprising that followed, they called for dismantling the carceral state and reinvesting that money into public housing. As one resident questioned at the October 2019 protest in front of the mayor’s residence, “you think it’s OK to build a prison but not fully fund NYCHA?” Through calls to keep public housing public and to be a central part of its transformation, residents spoke to their relationship with an institution that they rely upon, but whose proposed changes they actively resist.
Despite currently being mired in additional scandals that further erode the trust of residents, the housing authority continues to introduce—and implement—measures for its transformation. To tackle repairs in units not funded by conversions to private management through RAD or other NYCHA 2.0 revenue streams, in July 2020, NYCHA released a Blueprint for Change. The plan proposed the creation of a public trust to leverage debt on behalf of NYCHA, which traditional public-housing authorities cannot do (NYCHA 2020a). Along with public-value capture through the sale of air rights, finding a way to use public financing mechanisms for public housing is the most promising solution the housing authority has proposed yet. However, NYCHA still plans to move forward with a series of partial privatization efforts for the rest of its housing stock. As a senior official in the community engagement office stated, the main priority, above all else, is to preserve public housing for its residents for “the next 100 years,” regardless of the method (personal communication with NYCHA Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships, February 2020).
While the housing authority and its inhabitants both wish to preserve public housing for future generations, the means of achieving that goal remains important to residents who fear displacement or what else may come from the monetization of their homes. Yet with no federal funding in sight, the housing authority is increasingly concerned with filling its burgeoning budget gap. The housing authority’s desire to fix its deteriorating housing stock by any means necessary sits uneasily among residents who have ample reason to be distrustful of NYCHA’s efforts. While the fate of infill at Holmes Towers and other campuses across the city is still unclear, a major contradiction remains: when public housing is seen as an avenue for profit, is it actually being preserved?
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