Gowanus coalition demands city fund NYCHA buildings as part of rezoning

GNCJ presser
Wyckoff Gardens resident Cherry Shivers said repairs to the NYCHA complex are long overdue on Feb. 5.
Photo by Kevin Duggan

The city must fully fund repairs of its ailing public housing stock in Gowanus ahead of the neighborhood’s rezoning, a coalition of local community groups demanded Wednesday.

The Gowanus Neighborhood Coalition for Justice, a group representing residents from the neighborhood’s three New York City Housing Authority developments, along with a slew of local civic, environmental, and business groups, called on Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Department of City Planning to rehabilitate the ailing public housing — before handing private developers a windfall in development rights. 

“I’ve been living in my apartment for over 50-some-odd years and I’m tired of things not being fixed, I’m tired of New York City Housing [Authority] saying, ‘we got all this allocated money,’ but they’re not giving it to us,” said 81-year-old Cherry Shivers, who lives at Wyckoff Gardens.

The group wants the city to pay for fixes for Wyckoff Gardens, the Gowanus Houses, and 572 Warren St. as part of three key demands from the city in exchange for their support of the planned neighborhood-wide rezoning, which is estimated to bring some 20,000 new residents to the area and allow for up to 22-story-tall towers along the banks of the noxious Gowanus Canal.

The coalition also demanded that impending developers foot the bill for new infrastructure to prevent any additional sewer and storm overflow pollution from flooding into the canal, echoing previous calls from the US Environmental Protection Agency and the local citizens watchdog group overseeing the cleanup.

The third demand is that the city to designate Gowanus an “Environmental Justice Special District,” with stringent oversight by a diverse local board of residents, businesses, and civic gurus of the area’s many ongoing government projects, including the federal Superfund Cleanup, funding to repair damaged caused by Superstorm Sandy, and investments to fix NYCHA building roofs.

“We hope [the special district] will glue all of this together,” said Karen Blondel, an activist with the Fifth Avenue Committee which is part of GNCJ.

Some 4,300 residents dwell in the area’s three NYCHA complexes, which suffer from frequent outages of heat and hot water, and general water service, in addition to mold, lead paint, broken fixtures, and vermin as result of years of underinvestment, to according to Shivers.

“We pay our rent and we work hard to pay rent, and then we’re being used and abused,” she said. “We want to live like other people, we love our apartments.”

The buildings could face up to $300 million in funding needs, according to one activist, who slammed the city for excluding the developments from the rezoning’s scope.

“We feel that this is a great injustice, that to exclude public housing from the process, given the huge capital needs that are necessary in this area,” said Michael Higgins, an organizer with the Fifth Avenue Committee.

The Warren Street development is one of nine public housing sites in Brooklyn currently undergoing partial privatization through the city’s Permanent Affordability Commitment Together (PACT) program, a controversial variation on the federal Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, whereby a private company manages the building – although the the city still owns it — and uses private funds to finance repairs.

The program removes the development from Section 9 public housing and turns it into Section 8, whereby the US Department of Housing and Urban Development no longer directly funds the building’s upkeep, but issues Section 8 vouchers to tenants to help pay their rent to a private management company.

The coalition cites PACT as one of the ways of financing repairs in the other projects, but said the way the city is currently converting Warren Street is “in violation to our vision for equity and inclusion for this community,” according to a statement the group released. 

Despite this status change, the city could still channel funds to Warren Street, according to Councilman Stephen Levin (D–Boerum Hill), whose district includes all three NYCHA developments.

“[PACT] doesn’t preclude the city from ever giving capital funding to improve on top of that,” Levin said. “Just like the city can provide capital funding for other types of preservation programs.”