Vacant NYCHA Units Continue to Increase, With Transfers Complicated by PACT

Gothamist, Tatyana Turner, June 5, 2023

NYCHA’s target time is 30 days for apartment turnover. But as of April, it took the housing authority an average of 410 days to re-occupy a vacant apartment, up significantly from the start of the year and more than double what it took a year ago.

Aixa Torres, the tenant association president of Alfred E. Smith Houses in Manhattan, said her story is one that resonates with other NYCHA residents.

Torres, now 70, moved into her current apartment with her parents during childhood. As she grew older, so did the infrastructure at her Lower East Side development. Torres started noticing aged pipes, holes in walls, mold and asbestos—some of which, she said, were resolved with a paint job or tape. The apartments at Smith Houses were “simply falling apart.”

The average NYCHA resident lives in their apartment for 25 years. Before a new tenant can move in, units must be rehabilitated with routine paint and plaster jobs, and in some cases—especially in homes that haven’t been updated for decades—more extensive work, like lead and asbestos abatement.

NYCHA’s target time is 30 days for apartment turnover. But as of April, it took the housing authority an average of 410 days to re-occupy a vacant apartment, up significantly from the start of the year and more than double what it took a year ago. The number of empty apartments overall has increased sharply, particularly in the past year and a half, bringing the vacancy rate at NYCHA to 4.1 percent. 

In total, the housing authority now has some 6,583 empty apartments, including more than 3,800 units that were truly vacant as of April. The remainder are either already assigned to a prospective tenant to move in, or are considered “non-dwelling” units—meaning they’re undergoing construction, or are being used for another purpose, like office space.

These vacant units, despite their potential needed repairs, are still a vital resource to the quarter of a million hopefuls on NYCHA’s wait list for an affordable apartment, or to existing public housing residents looking to transfer units for various reasons, ranging from health and safety concerns to resizing purposes.

At Smith Houses alone, there were 41 empty apartments in April, up from just six a year before.

“I have people who have been waiting for years,” Torres said. “I’m not talking about one or two years, but three to five years.”

Transfers complicated by PACT: “A limited universe”

Among those waiting for vacant units are applicants to NYCHA’s Emergency Transfer Program, for NYCHA tenants who need to move for safety reasons, like if they were witness to or victim of a crime, including domestic violence.

There were approximately 2,330 emergency transfer requests pending as of March, officials said at a recent City Council hearing. Of that number, 76 percent were flagged as Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) transfers.

And while the average wait time to complete an emergency transfer was just four days in April, the most recent month for which data is available, NYCHA approved just 21 such transfers that month, the lowest number in a year, down from a high of 104 approved in June 2022.

With the Permanent Affordability Commitment Together (PACT) program underway, the transfer process—which can also include tenants looking to move for health and accessibility reasons, known as “reasonable accommodation” requests—has become even more complicated.

Through PACT, residents in more than 36,000 public housing apartments have been moved to private management, transferring them from Section 9 public housing to the more lucrative federal Section 8 program. The initiative aims to open new revenue streams to help NYCHA manage its mounting repair needs.

Applicants who are on the waiting list either for an affordable apartment or a transfer can add their name to a separate site-based waitlist for PACT developments, which now includes units at more than 36 NYCHA campuses.

A system called the Tenant Selection and Assignment Plan (TSAP) moves applicants into vacant units based on their priority—which considers if they are currently homeless, or were displaced from their home by an emergency—and how much time they were on the waitlist.

However, complications arise when it comes to transfer requests. Anna Luft, a supervising attorney with the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), said that one of the major issues with PACT transfers is that tenants are being told they can not transfer out of their bundle. A “bundle” is a group of PACT developments that share the same private management company or team, and are typically located in the same area.

“But even for those who don’t need to move to a particular location, they may still face significant complications when they need a reasonable accommodation transfer to an accessible unit or a ground floor unit because of mobility impairments,” Luft said.

Similarly, tenants who live in standard NYCHA housing are unable to transfer into a development that’s been converted to PACT. Luft found that residents who submitted transfer requests to another development before it was converted to PACT are having their applications canceled, despite being previously approved.

“The nature of having such a limited universe means that inevitably there will not be enough accessible apartments for tenants that require them,” Luft said. “Having a broader universe of developments that they could transfer into would alleviate that issue, but that’s not possible with RAD-PACT.”

NYCHA did not immediately reply to comments addressing these complaints.

“Slow performance and under-spending”

With a roughly 8 percent vacancy rate for maintenance staff in NYCHA, the housing authority taps outside vendors to help complete tasks, such as routine paint and plaster jobs, before a resident moves in.

To help achieve this goal, the city implemented a $78 million Vacant Unit Readiness program that takes funds to hire vendors who can do the appropriate repairs faster. This funding was cut by $31 million in the mayor’s November 2022 savings plan, before being replenished in his Executive Budget via an allocation to NYCHA’s capital budget, spread out through fiscal year 2027.

But lawmakers say the initiative has yet to live up to its name.

“This program, which is meant to rehab available NYCHA units to make them ready for new tenants, has been dogged by slow performance and underspending,” said Councilmember and Public Housing Committee Chair Alexa Aviles during a recent hearing. “In light of the influx of asylum seekers on top of the city’s pre-existing housing crisis, we simply cannot allow affordable housing units at NYCHA in our city to lay vacant.”

NYCHA officials have pointed to ongoing maintenance staff vacancies, as well as new standards for lead paint abatement, as fueling the surge in vacant units over the last year. 

Standards for lead were changed in 2019 from 1.0 milligrams per square centimeter to 0.5 milligrams per square centimeter, yielding a longer testing process. The new standard took effect in December of 2021, when the number of vacancies began to noticeably increase. As of 2021, 22,919 NYCHA apartments had tested positive for lead under the new requirement.

Some NYCHA units are in need of other extensive and time-consuming repairs. On average, it takes 55 days to perform an asbestos investigation and an additional 29 days for abatement if an apartment tests positive. Testing and remediation can cost anywhere between $28,000 and $63,000.

At older developments like Smith Houses, built in 1953, the chances of finding lead paint are greater. New York City banned its use in 1960.

“We have old tiles so they’ll have to re-tile the whole apartment which underneath has asbestos,” Torres said. “In places like Smith there’s asbestos and there’s lead—there’s no getting around it.”

Councilmember Lincoln Restler, during the public housing hearing on May 19, called the seemingly stagnant turnover process “unacceptable.”

“We are sitting with thousands of vacant apartments that should be housing families, that could be making a difference, that would ultimately prevent people from sleeping in gyms or in jails,” Restler said. “This is just awful.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for NYCHA said that the housing authority has a goal of completing transfers “as quickly as possible” while ensuring the safety of homes for New Yorkers.

“This extensive and required environmental work—a key obligation under the 2019 HUD Agreement—is best performed at turnover when apartments are unoccupied and remains essential to improving the quality of life for public housing residents across the City,” the statement read.

Mounting repair needs, coupled with piling rent arrears used for one-third of NYCHA’s operating budget, has also slowed the readying of apartments.

At the state level, Gov. Kathy Hochul set aside an estimated $163 million in this year’s budget for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP): $128 million for NYCHA ERAP applicants and an additional $35 million for the housing authority. How the funds will be distributed has yet to be determined but a decision will be made in partnership with the Office of Temporary Disability Assistance (OTDA).

“Once we have our conversations with OTDA and have a path forward, we are going to work with tenants to get them on payment plans, get them connected with resources, and if necessary, we will take people to court for nonpayment,” NYCHA’s Interim Chief Executive Officer Lisa Bova-Hiatt told lawmakers at the hearing.
Source: Gothamist