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OpinionColumnistsMark Chiusano

Will residents trust Bill de Blasio to fix NYCHA?

Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks at a forum

Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks at a forum at the Wyckoff Gardens housing development on Jan. 11, 2016. Photo Credit: Mark Chiusano

Upgrade public housing security with new, digital keys. This idea was greeted with trepidation, delays and technical difficulties. Which is a decent summary of the reception to Mayor Bill de Blasio's plan to save NYCHA itself.

​It seems like a pretty good idea: a key system that addresses security concerns at public housing developments and makes life easier for residents.

Instead of standard metal keys for exterior entrances, each resident would receive a small, lightweight electronic nub, smaller than a key ring, which, when tapped against a reader, would open the door. Thirty-two developments have the system, first proposed in 2010.

These key fobs, if lost, can't be duplicated. If stolen, they can be turned off. The overall system, known as "layered access," connects intercoms to residents' phones, enabling them to buzz people in remotely. Connection to cameras enhances security.

Unfortunately, things haven't gone exactly as planned.

The long road to broken

Six years ago, a NYCHA task force, including residents, recommended new cameras and the layered access system to update security in housing developments.

But the rollout dragged on, due to bureaucratic footslogging but also a lack of money.

At Wyckoff Gardens in Brooklyn, where the system was installed in 2014, the keys still present problems, partially due to confusion among residents, but also faulty equipment. At a forum Monday night, residents spoke of broken intercoms and fobs that don't open the door, causing some people to force the lock rather than wait for management.

Residents also expressed their fears that they were being tracked when they entered and exited. NYCHA says that information is deleted after three to four weeks and is only used in emergencies.

It is a concrete example of dissatisfaction residents felt with their living situations, in addition to disrespectful management, bad elevators, a lack of police. At a forum with residents at Wyckoff Monday night, Mayor Bill de Blasio wearily acknowledged NYCHA's problems. He challenged agency administrators to have all residents' phones connected to the intercom system in 30 days.

But de Blasio wasn't there to speak just about present conditions. He was pitching his plan to bring NYCHA into the future — which, like the key fobs, is proving more difficult than anticipated.

A plan to fix NYCHA

Put simply, NYCHA is broke.

The mighty housing authority set up by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia remains New York City's most plentiful guardian of affordable housing, but it is in a sorry state — lacking basic repairs, with faulty heat, pipes, appliances, paint jobs. There is the perception, at least among residents, that no one cares.

De Blasio says NextGen NYCHA will change that. Based partially on an initiative from the Bloomberg administration, NextGen would help cover $17 billion in unmet capital needs. But here's the kicker: To drum up this money, the plan would lease "underutilized" NYCHA land to developers, to build new mixed-income housing.

But many residents have been disturbed by the program, worried by an altered neighborhood and rising costs, not to mention the overcrowding and disruption of everyday life that the construction will cause. And of course, it seems ironic to be building new apartments when, in their existing ones, the heat is faulty, their stairways are filthy and their intercom is only intermittently functional.

NYCHA's top officials have held nearly 20 meetings with residents at Wyckoff Gardens and Holmes Towers in Manhattan, the potential first NextGen sites. Throughout the fall, those meetings have been contentious. So this week, de Blasio showed up to make his pitch, saying NYCHA needed the money his plan would bring.

"We're trying to get you something," he said. Clearly defensive about the reception to his plan, he joked, "How was your meeting with Mayor Giuliani? Was it great?"

Some residents were reluctantly hopeful. They weren't being offered much of a choice. It was this money, or none.

Concerning the situation with the keys, Debora Smith, 65, says, "I'm feeling a little bit better."

"There's some things he can do and a lot that he can't. I understand that. Things he can, he will fix. I believe in him."

This is amExpress, the conversation starter for New Yorkers. 


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