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June 20, 2019

A grudge match can help NYCHA

March 13, 2018

Ordinarily, too much bickering and backstabbing by rival politicians gums up the works, slowing down government and creating more problems than it solves. But in a strange way, the toxic rivalry between Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio might just be the magic ingredient needed to rescue the broke, battered and beleaguered New York City Housing Authority.

A recent political shot across the bow came from Cuomo last week, shortly after NY1 first reported that actress Cynthia Nixon is making serious plans to run against Cuomo.

Nixon has been conferring with top consultants from de Blasio’s camp, including Rebecca Katz and Bill Hyers. In political circles terms, that makes her candidacy an all-out attack on Cuomo by the mayor.

I expected some kind of response from Cuomo — and was startled when he publicly floated the possibility that the federal government might take control of NYCHA away from the de Blasio administration.

“If nothing is done locally, quickly, I think you’re going to see the federal government come in and take over,” Cuomo told me. “I was the former HUD secretary. I can tell you, if HUD was more attentive and even read the newspapers, they would have come in already.”

That is not idle speculation. More than 20 years ago, as Secretary of the federal Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, Cuomo seized control of public housing authorities in Chicago, New Orleans and Beaumont, Tex.

Federal seizures of public housing are painful. I saw the Chicago takeover up close, as a consultant advising the federally imposed managers on how to start a credit union for tenants.

Lots of people got fired. Auditors discovered millions in lost and stolen pension benefits, and rampant theft and corruption among staff members and vendors. Tenants were rightfully demoralized and distrustful.

It all turned out, in hindsight, to be the beginning of the end for the Chicago Housing Authority. A few years after the takeover ended, a sweeping plan was passed that led to the demolition of tens of thousands of units of housing.

Miles of decrepit towers along State St. were demolished and leveled, their residents scattered to the four winds with housing vouchers that many private landlords refused to accept. Communities and families were shattered, and the city’s shortage of affordable housing grew even more acute.

That’s what can happen when the feds seize control, which is why New York’s political class should go on full alert when Cuomo warns of a NYCHA takeover by HUD.

The governor sounded a similar theme at a press conference in the Bronx yesterday.

“The situation we’ve seen is as upsetting and as disturbing as anything I’ve seen anywhere, and I’ve been through public housing all across this country,” Cuomo said. “I’ve been through the worst housing complexes all across this country, and this situation is really intolerable.”

He’s right. As The News has reported in detail, conditions in NYCHA apartments are a public scandal. Most of NYCHA’s 400,000 residents went without heat for at least part of this winter. Agency officials have acknowledged that they falsely reported completing mandatory inspections for possible lead contamination when the tests were, in fact, left undone. Mold conditions are so serious that a federal monitor is overseeing the agency’s efforts to detect and remediate mold conditions.

De Blasio, of course, takes issue with Cuomo’s criticism.

“I think it would be very disingenuous for us, and certainly for the governor, to suggest that you can just swan in and be able to replace everybody’s boilers by next heating season. That actually shows sort of a lack of understanding of the complexity of the stock that we’re facing,” Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen said at a press conference in the vestibule of City Hall. “It is absolutely untrue that you just can replace every single boiler by next heating season. ”

Normally, de Blasio would handle hostile back-and-forth with the state himself. But the mayor was out of town attending political meetings in Baltimore, Austin and Washington — a fact that City Councilman Ritchie Torres, a former resident of public housing, pointed out with more than a hint of scorn.

“As many of you know, the mayor is out of town. But the mayor has been out of town when it comes to management of public housing,” Torres said. “His absence from New York City symbolizes, to me, the absentee management of public housing and the neglect of public housing residents as second-class residents and second-class New Yorkers.”

Strong words all around, and I couldn’t be happier. If politicians want to fight over who can best help the 400,000 residents of public housing, let the competition begin.

Louis is political anchor at NY1 News.

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