The new head of the city Housing Authority will be paid an unprecedented salary topping $400,000 — more than President Donald Trump, more than Gov. Andrew Cuomo and more than the man who appointed him Tuesday: Mayor Bill de Blasio.
De Blasio announced that he’s picked Gregory Russ, head of the relatively tiny Minneapolis Housing Authority, to run beleaguered NYCHA, the nation’s biggest housing authority.
Russ, who called his devotion to public housing “a calling,” will make roughly a dollar a year for every tenant who lives in NYCHA apartments — many of which are plagued by lead, mold and other woes.
THE CITY first reported plans to appoint Russ, who also previously ran the Cambridge, Mass., housing authority and is a big fan of teaming with private developers to manage public housing.
Late Tuesday, City Hall confirmed that Russ would be paid $402,628 a year — 74% higher than the $231,000 the last permanent NYCHA chairperson, Shola Olatoye, made. By comparison, Cuomo just got a raise that will bring his salary to $250,000 in two years, while de Blasio is paid $258,750. The president makes $400,000.
Russ earned $167,978 at his Minneapolis gig in 2017, according to the StarTribune.
City taxpayers will foot the bill for Russ’ paycheck with the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development, which has agreed to kick in $161,900 annually.
The mayor announced with U.S. Housing Secretary Benjamin Carson in an evening news release after missing two deadlines spelled out in a January deal with the feds.
Sources familiar with the selection process said that several other candidate turned down the NYCHA job, which comes with intense scrutiny and huge challenges.
Although NYCHA is undergoing dramatic changes wrought by the arrival in March of a federal monitor who’s expected to issue his first report next month, Russ will not start his new job until August.
The mayor, whose spokesperson claimed Monday “no decision had been made on any candidate,” touted Russ’ years of experience and his devotion to public housing. “Greg Russ stands out as someone with the guts to make big changes and the heart to do right by public housing residents,” de Blasio stated.
The mayor picked Russ from a list vetted by Carson and Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman under the January deal.
‘Public Housing is a Calling’
Russ will oversee 175,000 apartments housing some 400,000 tenants. The biggest agency he’s run so far — the Minneapolis Housing Authority — manages fewer than 6,300 apartments. The Cambridge Housing Authority is responsible for 2,700 units.
“Public housing is a calling,” Russ was quoted as saying in the mayor’s news release.
Russ championed an Obama-era program known as Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), in which housing authorities retain ownership of buildings but turn over management to private companies.
The firms must upgrade the buildings and then collect rent from tenants. Rents remain affordable, with help of continued government subsidies.
In Cambridge, Russ converted all 2,700 units to RAD. In Minneapolis, he had just put one development into the program, with plans to expand RAD further.
De Blasio initially shunned RAD, but switched gears last year and fully embraced the program, kicking off an ambitious plan to convert 62,000 NYCHA units.
Some tenant groups in New York have attacked the program, calling it a form of privatization of public apartments, even though ownership of all RAD apartments remains in the public sector.
Besides contending with resistance to his signature program, Russ will have multiple challenges to confront when he arrives this summer. Here’s some of what awaits him:
Who’s the Boss?
Russ will need to deal with the federal monitor, Bart Schwartz, who is charged with keeping a close eye on how NYCHA changes its mismanaging ways and begins systematically improving living conditions for residents.
Last month, Schwartz fired off a letter to Kathryn Garcia, the interim NYCHA chair, contending the authority has fallen short of its promises to inspect and clean up apartments with lead paint where young children live. He said the agency has relied on untrained staff to do some of the work, and likely will not make its deadline to inspect 135,000 units presumed to have lead paint.
Schwartz is set next month to release his first report detailing what he and his staff of attorneys and investigators have found as they delve into what makes NYCHA tick. Although the monitor does not have the power to fire NYCHA staff, he can make recommendations to reassign people. NYCHA can fight his recommendations, but HUD has the final say.
$37 Billion in Repairs
After years of postponed maintenance and sluggish spending of the billions in federal dollars it gets, NYCHA’s buildings — 60% of which were constructed before 1960 — have deteriorated dramatically. The authority currently estimates it needs $37 billion to properly upgrade all of its 2,400 buildings.
Since public housing in America is largely funded by the federal government, Russ will face a struggle to obtain money from Washington. HUD’s funding of public housing has diminished. Although Congress increased funds for NYCHA last year, it’s not yet clear how the hosuing agency will fare this year.
Lead Paint Scandal Lawsuit
NYCHA faces a pending lawsuit brought by tenants whose children were poisoned by lead during the time when the agency stopped doing lead paint inspections required by HUD and local law.
NYCHA’s agreement to bring in a monitor came after the feds documented how the authority falsely certified it was performing required tests.
A Manhattan federal judge has ordered NYCHA to turn over thousands of pages of internal documents, emails and logs detailing how the authority and the city mishandled lead paint cleanup requirements. City health officials ignored federal standards when notifying NYCHA about children with alarming blood-lead levels living in public housing.
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