A Personalized Response From the Chair of the Nation’s Largest Public Housing Authority

Readers may remember that in April of this year, Dick got up anonymously at a town hall meeting and posed a question that got a standing ovation from the crowd . When the Plan to Preserve Public Housing is released later this year; if a comprehensive plan to address vandalism, crime and waste management is published you can say Dick was instrumental in making this happen.  Below you will find the letter written and a personalized response from the chairman himself.

Dear Chairman Rhea:
 
I am a resident of NYCHA who posed to you the hard line question at the Safety and Security meeting April 7th at 6pm at the Rutgers Community Houses (which I may add did not have translation services due to improper preparation) about the incentives and deterrents NYCHA has in place to foster good behavior within public housing so that it may be a safe, decent and affordable place for generations to come. My question was not meant to humiliate you but rather make you think about the managerial decisions you make.
 
During this presentation your security task force recommended a multi layer security system. From a public administration standpoint this sounds like a very good idea but I stand opposed to it unless additional measures are put into place. Your survey fails to ask residents about allowing strangers into the building. Consider this scenario. I am a resident approaching my building with either my new scan card or electromagnetic door key. I see three people waiting to get in but do not know whether they reside in my building. When I open the door do I a)  let them in b) or tell them I am not letting them in?
 
I will predict that most residents over 90% will let them in because in such a high crime and violent neighborhood the possible consequences (argument, scuffle) far outweigh the benefits. As you recall one of the comments during the open forum was an elderly lady that said she was uncomfortable putting her safety at risk to do the right thing.
 
What disappointed me the most the other day was watching a five year child try to gain entry to my building by pulling the door with force. Where do you think they learned this unacceptable behavior? From their parents who feel the need to do the same. As a Harvard Business School graduate you should know that people are driven by economic incentives. What incentives (or deterrents) are in place to discourage residents not to vandalize, urinate in the elevator or dispose of their garbage in the stairwell? Unfortunately the behaviors I just mentioned are not caused by outsiders rather they are caused by the people I live with and a long standing system that has allowed it to happen.
 
A resident proposed that the authority do a better job of screening applicants. This is another idealistic system that will garner little effectiveness; she assumes that you can tell who they are in an interview. I propose a sweat equity program where all residents of working age between 18-64 will be required to donate time to review cameras, assure waste is managed accordingly, sort recyclables and clean elevators. This puts the incentives of promoting a sanitary, crime free lifestyle DIRECTLY in the hands of residents. I know this may sound an absolutely ludicrous idea but trust me there have been crazier ideas that are successful.
 
For example an insider told me NYCHA spent about $5000 each to install recycling bins at over 3000 buildings a few years ago. That amounts to over $15 million dollars spent on a contract that has still garnered pathetic recycling diversion rates for NYCHA if any. Why is that? What are my incentives to properly sort my recyclables and bring them downstairs. None. When you implied there were no deterrents (or incentives)  and it was against federal regulations to fine tenants for vandalism I was appalled.
 
As leaders of the largest public housing authority I expect you and your team to make informed decisions. I expect you to take this information and force HUD to change these rules to work to continue to provide affordable, safe and sanitary public housing. I also hope you give my letter serious consideration because it comes directly from someone who understands the problems living in the public housing.I truly believe these innovative solutions are what NYCHA is missing.

Thanks for your note. I certainly appreciate the passion you have for your community and public housing across the city.

We are actively looking at additional ways to encourage resident engagement through service and volunteerism. Our green efforts, including recycling, certainly will be a part of those initiatives.

HUD regulations around fines and other charges, although in some ways restrictive, are intended to protect low-income residents from fees which are tantamount to rent increases or shifting of expenses from the PHA to the resident. Having said that, I agree that when those regulations are impractical or onerous it is up to NYCHA to take leadership in working with other PHA’s and HUD to revise the policies.

Additionally, there are certain existing HUD policies that we must do a better job of enforcing (like the service requirement for non-working, non-exempt residents) that can go a long way to developing the resident involvement you describe in your email.

Thanks again for your input. It’s much appreciated and valued.

All the best,
JR

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