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Public Employee Press
A powerful series of investigative articles in the Daily News this summer put the Housing Authority under renewed public scrutiny. The News unearthed an astounding scandal:
The Daily News exposé hit home because of the downsizing and service cuts affecting members. The union strongly embraces the historic mission of the authority to provide decent housing for poor and working-class families.
The average family income of public housing dwellers is $22,824, and the typical monthly rent is $434. Some 15,000 DC 37 members and retirees live in public housing.
If NYCHA were a city, it would rank as the 21st largest city in the country, bigger than Boston. All told, 5 percent of New Yorkers reside in public housing, and another 235,000 receive Section 8 vouchers through NYCHA.
Dedicated to preserving public housing, DC 37 fought hard to secure millions in federal funding for NYCHA projects, but the Housing Authority responded to the union's help by gutting its unionized workforce and contracting out work traditionally done in-house.
NYCHA operates in the red, running a $6 billion deficit. Under the Bloomberg administration, NYCHA has laid off thousands of workers, including carpenters, plumbers, electricians, plasterers and painters, in favor of contracting out repairs to private companies.
Complaints and repair orders that used to come into NYCHA rent offices now go to the automated central calling center, which feeds them back to Housing Assistants at each project. At alarming rates, tenants report broken appliances, frozen elevators, faulty wiring, crumbling walls, mold, and infestations of mice, roaches and rats.
"Staffing shortages and management's pressure for clerks to process 80 or more complaints a day puts an overwhelming burden on the shoulders of clerical employees," said Local 957 President Walthene Primus.
Over the past decade, NYCHA's clerical staff has fallen from 1,086 to 679, social service staff has shrunk from 410 to 239, engineering and technical employees have declined from 438 to 210 and the information technology staff has gone down from 110 to 89. The number of DC 37 members working at NYCHA is down almost 1,000, from 2,327 to 1,354 (see box at right).
Robert Ajaye, president of Electronic Data Processing Employees Local 2627, criticized the outsourcing of information technology, saying NYCHA could save money by keeping work in-house and retraining its staff instead of employing excessively compensated consultants.
Rhea admitted that NYCHA missed out on $800 million in federal aid in 2010 and 2011 to repair roofs and brickwork because he lacked enough qualified staff to apply for the funds, the Daily News reported.
DC 37 Associate Director Henry Garrido said that while NYCHA continues to cut its frontline staff, it isn't carrying out similar downsizing of its well-compensated managers, who typically enjoy salaries of $125,000 to $150,000 and in some cases get bonuses.
From 2002 to 2009, NYCHA cut its nonmanagerial staff by 21 percent while trimming management by only 7 percent, according to City Limits magazine.
Contractors cost more, do less
Over the years, engineering and technical workers represented by Local 375 have seen their ranks erode as NYCHA contracts out design and construction management work.
"They are hiring outside construction managers at much higher costs than what we're paid, and they are not filling positions as in-house staff leaves," said Joshua Barnett, president of Local 375's NYCHA chapter. "Management has been unable to demonstrate to the union that the outsourcing is saving money or improving efficiency."
In 2003 and 2004, NYCHA's Capital Projects Division launched a pilot program to contract out construction management to outside firms. To streamline the division's design and bidding processes, the authority hired Jacobs Engineering, which brought in consultants.
In March, the City Comptroller's Office released an audit of the outsourcing initiative, CM/Build program, which has awarded $425 million to 10 construction management companies. The audit found that 71 of 131 projects were behind schedule. Outright privatization of public housing developments is something Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he would never do.
Instead, NYCHA privatizes piecemeal, said DC 37 officials. NYCHA's tilt toward contracting out is no surprise, considering the background of its leadership.
Social services abandoned
Though it was funded by taxpayers, Rhea never gave the actual BCG report to the public. Instead he released a PowerPoint summary, which the City Council blasted for costing about $93,000 per slide.
Full of consultant-speak, it blames civil service rules and unions for NYCHA's inefficiency: "Labor procedures (civil service/union) impede ability to deploy resources more effectively," claimed BCG, which urged the authority to:
"NYCHA wants to abandon social services," said Anthony Wells, president of Social Service Employees Union Local 371.
For decades, Local 371 members at NYCHA community centers have provided vital social services that address issues, such as drug abuse, domestic violence and timely rent payments, and provide day care, summer day camp, after-school and recreational programs for residents and their children.
Now they see services declining and their jobs withering away as NYCHA replaces civil service workers with unqualified, underpaid nonunion workers. DC 37 continues to fight NYCHA's attempts to implement this two-tier plan.
"NYCHA has money; otherwise how could they pay the contractors?" reasoned Local 371 member Americo Santiago, director of the Cooper Park Senior Citizen Center in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.
NYCHA retains a skeleton staff of qualified city social service workers to meet city and state requirements while it farms out work to the Dept. for the Aging and the Dept. of Youth and Community Development, which in turn contract out the work to nonprofit agencies that typically pay $8 an hour to temporary workers.
"It's union busting," said Community Associate Juan Ortiz, a Local 371 member at the Williamsburg Community Center. "I don't believe it's an accident that NYCHA is sitting on the federal money. It's set up to fail."
As the neighborhood gentrifies, he said, NYCHA, private developers and consulting agencies are eying the property anew.
The Williamsburg center features soaring glass block walls, indoor basketball courts, and a garden, where seniors grow grapefruit and lemon trees, herbs and tropical flora. Ortiz, a lifelong Williamsburg resident, fears the building could be sold or "repurposed."
"Services are contracted out, so in a weird way we are collaborating with nonprofit consultants who are very connected to the Bloomberg administration," Ortiz said. The nonprofit Grand Street Settlement won a multimillion-dollar contract to run youth and family programs at WCC.
"The bulk of the money goes to administrative fees. A lot of people are getting rich off poor people," Ortiz said. "But the workers - they have no rights and they need their jobs."
Ortiz received grants to help provide computer literacy programs, but the funds went to NYCHA's central office and not his center, where a bank of computers sits unused and locked away. While NYCHA is $6 billion in debt, it continues to pay a high price for profiteering consulting firms to administer the same services NYCHA's unionized workforce provides.
"The difference," Ortiz said, "is the job we do helps families we've known for years. We've been here, and we are known for our social commitment to the children and the community."