The new $400,000-a-year chair of the New York City Housing Authority arrives as a crusader for teaming with the private sector to rebuild public housing — and as a lightning rod for controversy.
Gregory Russ’ signature strategy — an Obama-era reinvestment program known as Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) — has set off alarm bells among tenants in Minneapolis, where he now works, and in New York, where he starts in August.
At issue is the persistent yet unsubstantiated tenant fear that RAD is a cover story for a secret plan to privatize public housing — a contention Russ and other defenders of the program vigorously deny.
Tensions over RAD were heightened in Minneapolis by confusing messages to public housing residents asked to move to make way for renovations. Some say they’re unsure if they’ll be able to return.
Russ told THE CITY he’ll continue his enthusiastic support of RAD in New York — and promised no NYCHA tenant will lose their apartment.
“Residents rightfully have questions and concerns about the future of their homes, but one thing is clear: RAD is not privatization with displacement,” Russ told THE CITY.
He noted that NYCHA and federal Housing and Urban Development requirements for RAD forbid permanent displacement. “Every NYCHA resident with an apartment now will have an apartment after the conversion,” he vowed.
Russ said that RAD “allows us to raise much-needed funds that will help us preserve New York City’s public housing.”
But his approach on RAD differs from the city’s tact so far: He favors keeping management of apartments with the authority. NYCHA has, so far, turned over management to private vendors.
De Blasio Gets RAD-icalized
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who wasn’t initially a RAD fan, came around last year to embrace the program as medicine to help cure NYCHA’s ills, amid a Justice Department lawsuit over dismal living conditions and mismanagement.
In November, he promised to put 62,000 NYCHA apartments into the program by 2028, which would amount to the biggest RAD conversion in America.
While more than 100,000 apartments have undergone conversion nationally, so far NYCHA has converted only 1,395 units at the Ocean Bay Houses in Far Rockaway, Queens. The agency is moving toward converting 1,088 units at the Betances Houses in the Bronx as well as 1,718 more at 16 developments across Manhattan.
NYCHA turned over management of Ocean Bay to a private firm, Wavecrest, which renovated the units with taxpayer funding.
Under New York City’s spin on RAD — locally rebranded “Permanent Affordability Commitment Together,” or PACT — NYCHA leases the property to Wavecrest, which collects rent and is responsible for repairs. Wavecrest can also move to evict tenants for lease violations.
Ocean Bay tenants have generally praised the RAD upgrade. But residents at other public housing developments, under the umbrella group “Fight for NYCHA,” have held protests with signs objecting to RAD expansion, stating, “Public Housing is NOT a for-profit business.”
Similar protests erupted in Minneapolis last year, after Russ moved to renovate, via RAD, a 174-unit senior housing complex called Elliot Twins. Tenants say the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority made contradictory promises about how RAD will play out for them.
Ladan Yusuf, a campaign organizer for the Defend Glendale & Public Housing Coalition, which is fighting the Elliot Twins conversion, said tenants were told no one would have to move out of the development during renovations, and that they’d be relocated within the project.
Tenants later learned the Housing Authority planned to relocate all tenants — and did not specify where residents would go.
“They changed their story,” said Yusuf, who lives at another MPHA site, Glendale Houses, where residents in 2015 stopped a previous attempt at RAD conversion.
HUD documents distributed to Elliot Twins tenants clearly state that all tenants are “guaranteed” an apartment there once renovations are complete.
Yet a “general interest notice” sent to tenants last year promised that the Housing Authority would find an apartment elsewhere for Elliot Twins tenants “if you are permanently displaced” during renovations.
Minneapolis Public Housing Authority spokesperson Jeff Horwich dismissed that phrasing, saying the HUD notice was “stock” language and stated flatly, “There is no potential for permanent displacement from the property.”
Russ told THE CITY non-Elliot tenants have misrepresented his handling of RAD and that fears of displacement are unfounded.
“While some outside the process have worked to sow confusion, MPHA’s communication with residents about relocation has been consistent from the first discussions of RAD at the Elliot Twins,” he stated. “We have always been clear that residents cannot remain in their same apartment through a major renovation.”
Russ described tenant engagement going forward that would clearly spell out a “relocation rights agreement” so there’s no confusion about relocation and ultimate return to their homes.
“Every resident will have a home throughout and a guaranteed right-to-return to the Elliot Twins after the work is done,” he said.
The Cambridge Model
Russ is taking heat in Minnesota, despite taking pains to ensure that in his version of RAD public housing remains under the housing authority’s management — a playbook he followed when he ran the equivalent agency in Cambridge, Mass.
And this is the approach Russ wants to bring to New York, he told THE CITY: keeping management of properties with the Housing Authority while attracting private investors to pay for renovations of older buildings with the help of federal tax credits.
“I would very much like to do that,” he said. “If we can do the deal, why not use the public approach?”
If Russ follows through it will mark a reversal for NYCHA, which on Friday revealed the private development consortium that will take over management of 16 Manhattan developments via RAD.
Under Russ’ approach, the Housing Authority would retain ownership of the land, but the investors gain 99% ownership of the buildings to qualify for the tax credits. After 15 years, the ownership returns to the Housing Authority.
Bracing for the Big Move
Danny Barber, president of the Council of Presidents, a NYCHA tenant leadership group, suggested that the communication problems in Minneapolis do not speak well of Russ’ leadership.
“The residents have lost hope in their leadership. Greg Russ is their leadership,” he said. “Is he really bringing a difference to New York City? We don’t know until we see what he’s doing. He hasn’t done [anything] on this magnitude before.”
To date, Russ has managed much smaller public housing authorities: Minneapolis has 6,200 apartments. In Cambridge, it was 2,700. NYCHA has 175,000 units, housing over 400,000 people — roughly the population of Minneapolis.
Russ is acutely aware of the jump he’s making.
“The first thing is, it’s exciting to have something of this scale but I do appreciate how this is going to have to be thought about because it’s massive,” he acknowledged.
And he brushed off criticism about weekend visits he plans to make back to the Midwest because his family will be staying there at least through the next school year.
“This is a full time job. I’m going to put the hours in. I’m going to be available,” Russ said. “We don’t have a schedule [for family visits] worked out. There will be times when my family comes to visit — because New York is a great place.”
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