public housing

NYCHA’s New $400,000 Boss Faces Backlash Over Pay and Hours

Gregory Russ was tapped to become NYCHA’s next chairperson.
Gregory Russ was tapped to become NYCHA’s next chairperson. Photo: Minneapolis Public Housing Authority

At the Vladeck Houses on the Lower East Side, tenant Olivia Lingister bristled at the news that incoming city Housing Authority boss Gregory Russ will be taking home a $402,000 paycheck.

One of Vladeck’s buildings is experiencing a cooking gas outage that began in April. Lingister — who’s lived most of her 58 years in the development, which opened in 1940 — says she went without hot water for more than a year there.

“If we were making the same money he was making, this would not be,” she said. “I guarantee you where he lives, he’s not experiencing what the tenants are experiencing.”

She wasn’t alone in her criticism of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s selection of Russ as NYCHA’s new chairperson at an unprecedented salary for the post.

Others noted that Russ, who made about $168,000 in his previous job running Minneapolis’ public housing system, won’t start until Aug. 12. He’ll also be a regular visitor to Minnesota, where his family will remain through the next school year, City Hall said.

“It strikes me as absurd that he’s getting paid far more than any previous NYCHA chair to officially do less work,” said Councilmember Ritchie Torres (D-Bronx), chair of the Oversight and Investigations Committee and a frequent critic of NYCHA management. “It’s not treating it as a 24/7 job.”

Councilmember Alicka Ampry-Samuel (D-Brooklyn), chair of the Public Housing Committee, noted that news of Russ’ big paycheck comes as NYCHA’s new federal monitor, Bart Schwartz, has yet to disclose his salary.

“I can’t help but criticize how professionals continue to get paid off of residents’ need for aid,” she said.

Rachel Fee, director of the New York Housing Conference, which has been pushing for more funds for NYCHA upgrades, was alarmed that Russ won’t start until August “given the urgent needs and the state of crisis.”

But she tried to remain optimistic: “The salary is outrageous, but if he gets the job done, he will have earned it.”

Travel Home on Tap

Marcy Miranda, a City Hall spokesperson, said Russ will move to New York but his family will remain in Minnesota “for the upcoming school year so they can complete the academic year.”

Russ will travel back and forth, although it’s not clear how often. “There is no set travel schedule,” she added.

The city, via NYCHA, will pay $240,728 of Russ’ salary, while the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) will throw in another $161,900 for the total of $402,628. The city housing agency also will pay for up to $15,000 in moving expenses.

Housing Secretary Ben Carson and Mayor Bill de Blasio sign a deal to have a new federal monitor oversee NYCHA, Jan. 31, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

By comparison, de Blasio is paid $258,750 and Gov. Andrew Cuomo just got a raise that will bring his salary to $250,000 by 2021. President Donald Trump makes $400,000.

Russ was picked from a list of candidates put together by HUD Secretary Ben Carson, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman and City Hall following a January agreement to reorganize NYCHA’s leadership and bring in a federal monitor.

Miranda said Wednesday that Russ’ unusually high salary was agreed to by the mayor and Carson after HUD and Berman’s office “heard from other housing leaders across the country that our initial salary was not competitive.”

Sources familiar with the selection process said it was hard to find candidates to run the nation’s largest public housing system, which is plagued by lead, mold and other woes. The aging system, beset by years of mismanagement, is strapped for cash as it needs an estimated $37 billion in repairs.

“This is a job that’s probably very hard to find someone for and if you’re going to pay someone $400,000, if they do a good job it’s worth the money,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson (D-Manhattan).

A Big Change for Russ

NYCHA houses some 400,000 New Yorkers living in 170,000 apartments. In Minneapolis, Russ managed 6,300 units — a boost from the 2,700 he previously oversaw in Cambridge, Mass.

Russ has drawn attention in both cities for his enthusiastic support for an Obama-era program that teams housing authorities with private developers to renovate public housing.

In Minneapolis, his push for the program known as RAD — Rental Assistance Demonstration — inspired the formation of a protest group that saw the move as the first step toward privatizing public housing.

During a January meeting on Russ’ plan to convert a 174-unit senior housing development to RAD, protestors were escorted from the room after attacking the program as anti-tenant.

Similar protests have emerged in New York as de Blasio has said he wants to turn over the management of 62,000 units to developers under RAD over the next decade.

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