Is NYCHA falling backward?May 12, 2019
It was a terrible week for the New York City Housing Authority. Not only did a key union reject vital reforms, but a fire at a NYCHA building killed six people.
In a blow to Mayor de Blasio, members of the authority’s largest union voted down the “historic new labor deal” that he announced last month. Teamsters Local 237’s maintenance workers, caretakers and supervisors rejected new seven-day-a-week service schedules that paid a one-time $1,500 bonus (bribe) on top of 2 percent raises.
A bigger push to win over union members might have gotten the contract through: More than half the ballots weren’t returned. Now the issue goes to arbitration, with a high risk that work rules won’t change.
For decades, rigid union contracts have inflated NYCHA’s costs and hamstrung efforts to reverse its decline. And de Blasio and then-NYCHA chief Stanley Brezenoff had said that expanding worker hours was critical to addressing the agency’s ills.
Indeed, the city’s plan to make good on its settlement with federal prosecutors relies on implementing the just-rejected labor agreement.
You have to worry that the mayor’s deal with the feds to install a monitor over the authority (and force out Brezenoff) has set everything back.
Meanwhile, the fire in a fifth-floor Harlem apartment that took the lives of four children, their mom and another adult was a fresh reminder of NYCHA’s many failings.
For example, the Frederick Samuel Houses failed a February 2017 federal health and safety inspection. NYCHA reports that it then installed smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors, including in the apartment that just went up in flames.
The agency’s interim head, Kathryn Garcia, says the battery-operated device was tested this January.
Yet tenants who escaped the inferno and firefighters at the scene reported hearing no alarms. If the detectors are defective, NYCHA has an obligation to replace them. (And being too sensitive, so that tenants muffle them after a series of false alarms, is a defect.)
Painfully, NYCHA’s plans to “privatize” the Samuel Houses under the federal Rent Assistance Demonstration initiative might well have addressed the building’s outdated and dangerous design, with fire-prone kitchens close to the only exits. Transferring the homes to private management would also have allowed for renovations that should have improved safety.
Pushing for a rapid embrace of RAD was a Brezenoff priority, after years when the de Blasio administration resisted “privatization.”
The question now is whether the city and/or the federal monitor can match Brezenoff’s leadership. One early test: If arbitration of the Local 237 contract doesn’t deliver the savings and productivity gains the city has promised, the monitor must step in to impose a better arrangement.
And Garcia should be prioritizing other ill-designed buildings (many of them once-private properties acquired by NYCHA in the ’70s and ’80s) for fast handover under RAD.
NYCHA reforms need to accelerate, not slow.
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