Justice advocates will file lawsuit against NYCHA land lease plan

A rendering from a NYCHA “discussion document” on what kind of development could occur — in this case, a 500-foot-tall tower (in blue, at right) at Smith Houses — under the infill plan.
A rendering from a NYCHA “discussion document” on what kind of development could occur — in this case, a 500-foot-tall tower (in blue, at right) at Smith Houses — under the infill plan.

BY SAM SPOKONY | Originally published Nov, 8, 2013 | Opponents of the New York City Housing Authority’s plan to lease public land to private developers have filed a lawsuit against the agency in an attempt to stop the plan from moving forward.

The Urban Justice Center and New York Environmental Law and Justice Project announced on Tuesday that they filed suit in State Supreme Court to prevent NYCHA from accepting any bids to construct primarily luxury residential buildings in five of the eight developments targeted for the authority’s “infill” land lease plan.

The five developments involved in the lawsuit are Smith Houses, on the Lower East Side; Meltzer Tower and Campos Plaza, both in the East Village; and Carver and Washington Houses, both in East Harlem. The new buildings would be so-called “80/20,” 80 percent market rate, 20 percent affordable.

In August, NYCHA issued a request for expressions of interest, or R.F.E.I., to garner bids from private developers who want to build within the complexes — in some cases on lots currently used as parks and community gardens. The authority set a deadline of Nov. 18 to receive the bids.

The lawsuit claims that NYCHA violated state and federal laws by failing to conduct environmental reviews and floodplain analyses — which determine possibilities for flooding on the planned construction sites — before issuing the R.F.E.I.

The suit also claims that the agency violated the public trust doctrine — which dictates that certain resources should be reserved for public use — because it failed to obtain necessary legislative approval before offering leases that would eliminate some parkland within the developments.

“Without a proper environmental review process, NYCHA is trying to shoehorn in deals with luxury housing developers before the window closes on the Bloomberg administration,” said Joel Kupferman, director of N.Y.E.L.J.P., at a press conference outside City Hall on Tuesday. “It is especially irresponsible, not to mention unlawful, to rush into a bidding process for large-scale construction at NYCHA developments that are still reeling from Hurricane Sandy’s devastation, and where FEMA’s best available data shows the greatest flood hazards in Lower Manhattan.”

Many public housing residents oppose NYCHA’s land-lease plan, and tenant associations from the five developments in the suit have joined as plaintiffs.

“Based on what happened in my development after Sandy, I’m shocked that NYCHA has not thought about the environmental impacts the land-lease program could have on our community,” said Derese Huff, president of the Campos Plaza Tenant Association, at Tuesday’s press conference.

The City Council filed a lawsuit against NYCHA over this same plan slightly more than a month ago. However, that suit instead attempted to prove that state law prohibits the leasing of public housing property to market-rate tenants.

City Councilmember Margaret Chin was at Tuesday’s press conference to show support for the litigation.

“This lawsuit is a further indictment of NYCHA’s failure to meaningfully engage the community in a plan that directly impacts the day-to-day lives residents and their families,” Chin said. “At a time when affordable housing, especially public housing, is diminishing, it is more important than ever for the city to protect what public land we have.”

Congressmembers Jerrold Nadler and Nydia Velazquez also back the new lawsuit.

In October, NYCHA responded to the Council’s legal action by arguing that its plan — which would grant the private developers 99-year leases — would generate $50 million annually, to be used for much-needed building repairs, among other things.

Last week, NYCHA declined to give specific answers to questions about environmental reviews or floodplain analyses.

“It’s unfortunate that there is any attempt to block a proposal that would generate significant revenue for the New York City Housing Authority — money that would go directly into developments and capital improvements for NYCHA residents,” an agency spokesperson said.