empty chair

New Housing Honcho a No-Show at Annual NYCHA Town Hall

NYCHA board members and a high-ranking NYPD housing cop listen to residents at the Borough of Manhattan Community College on July 18, 2019.
NYCHA board members and a high-ranking NYPD housing cop listen to residents at the Borough of Manhattan Community College on July 18, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The city Housing Authority held its annual town hall Thursday — and for the first time in years, the tenants who showed up couldn’t confront the person the mayor appointed to run the agency.

The authority’s incoming chairperson, Gregory Russ, was nowhere in sight. Appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio June 18 at a salary of $402,628, the Minneapolis housing boss won’t start work at NYCHA until mid-August.

Also missing in action was NYCHA General Manager Vito Mustaciuolo, who skipped the session at Tribeca’s Borough of Manhattan Community College, where tenants from the around the city to discuss the agency’s “annual plan.”

‘Running NYCHA Is a 24/7 Job’

Russ already has come under fire for his huge paycheck and his plans to return some weekends to Minnesota, where his family will remain for the coming school year.

That issue emerged at Thursday’s meeting when Nancy Ortiz, tenant president of the Vladeck Houses on the Lower East Side, declared she had “a message for the chairman.”

“Running NYCHA is a 24/7 job. We can’t have a part-time person,” she said. “If this is not going to be brought to the table then don’t take the job.”

Vladeck Houses tenant association president Nancy Ortiz speaks at the NYCHA town hall in lower Manhattan.
Vladeck Houses tenant association president Nancy Ortiz speaks at the NYCHA town hall in lower Manhattan. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Henry Coaxum, tenant president of Justice Thurgood Marshall Plaza, a senior citizens building in Washington Heights, didn’t mention Russ by name, but worried about the new leadership.

“Unless the right people are in place, nothing is going to happen,” he said. “I sincerely hope that this time around we have the right people in place.”

The nation’s biggest housing authority, with 400,000 tenants and 175,000 apartments, hasn’t had a permanent leader since spring 2018, when then-Chairperson Shola Olatoye resigned shortly after it was revealed she’d falsely certified NYCHA was in compliance with lead paint inspections.

Since then, the authority has been run by interim chairs, including longtime public servant Stanley Brezenoff and de Blasio’s Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia.

In February, Garcia took on a second temporarily role as interim NYCHA chair after the mayor signed off on an agreement with the Manhattan U.S. attorney and federal housing officials to increase oversight of the troubled agency with a federal monitor.

No Chair for a Month

Garcia stepped down as interim chair and returned full-time to run the Sanitation Department shortly after de Blasio hired Russ. Since then, no one appointed by the mayor is overseeing NYCHA’s day-to-day operations.

Under his agreement with de Blasio, Russ starts work Aug. 12. He has visited the authority at least once since his appointment, but did not make it to the annual plan meeting, a once-a-year presentation to tenants of NYCHA’s plans.

The tenants who showed up Thursday were left to air their frustrations to four of NYCHA’s seven unpaid board members — including Garcia, who has remained on the board and serves as a proxy for Russ until he shows up. The reps from the Housing Authority don’t speak at the meeting, they just listen.

In past years, hundreds of tenants have turned out to the annual session to take advantage of the rare opportunity to deliver their complaints and, on occasion, their compliments, to the head of NYCHA.

During the terms of ex-mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg and for most of de Blasio’s tenure, a NYCHA chair — either permanent or interim — was always present at the annual gathering.

The meeting comes at a crucial time as NYCHA has begun turning over management of more buildings to private management companies under an Obama administration program known as Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD). De Blasio plans to put 62,000 apartments — one-third of all NYCHA apartments — into the RAD program in the coming years.

Some tenants have protested against the program, seeing it as the first step toward NYCHA privatizing its apartments. Under the way NYCHA is embracing RAD, the authority retains ownership of the buildings but allows private firms to manage the properties and pocket the rent.

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