NYCHA drops bombshell on Mill Brook Houses

NYCHA residents and Community Board 1 put housing officials on notice at a June 30 meeting, saying they are out of patience with the city’s housing policies and plan to ratchet up the pressure to demand transparency in the way decisions are made.

West Side Federation for Senior and Supportive Housing. An architect's rendering of Mill Brook Terrace.
Courtesy of West Side Federation for Senior and Supportive Housing. An architect’s rendering of Mill Brook Terrace.

Revenue from new project would not pay for Mill Brook’s repairs

Residents of Mill Brook Houses say NYCHA officials misled them into believing that revenue generated by a new building being proposed on a parking lot on the complex’s grounds would be used for repairs in their rundown, cash-strapped buildings.

Adding salt to the wound, the residents say that the expectation of that revenue was the one giveback from the developer that led them to go along with the proposal in the first place. 

A housing official and the new project’s developer were pummeled with angry questions at a June 30 meeting of Community Board 1, after presenting a slideshow detailing the Mill Brook Terrace proposal, which calls for 165 affordable apartments for seniors and a senior center.

“What benefit is Mill Brook getting financially from doing this?” said Arline Parks, the chair of Board 1’s Land Use Committee, pointing out that Mill Brook residents often have to wait months for repairs.

The answer: no benefit at all. The need for cash “is not getting addressed through this building,” admitted Brian Loughlin, NYCHA’s director of new construction.

The project was announced last year as part of NextGeneration NYCHA, which calls for new projects on underused spaces within existing complexes, to generate cash for repairs inside its buildings. Instead, Loughlin said, the objective behind Mill Brook Terrace is to help ease the city’s stark affordable housing crunch, by creating housing for low-income seniors. “This is a separate development. It is not part of Mill Brook.”

He added that “projects at these sites do not generate a large amount of revenue,” so there is a need to make them attractive to developers in other ways. Board members were further aghast when Loughlin announced the land would be leased to the developer for 99 years at $1 per year, pending negotiations.

The president of Mill Brook’s resident association, Princella Jamerson, said that although she had helped organize several discussions between tenants and NYCHA officials at the complex’s community center in recent months, this was the first time NYCHA had revealed the terms of the lease.

“A dollar?!” Jamerson exclaimed. “That’s not right. They said the revenue was going to go into infrastructure. You all totally blindsided the people who were at your visioning process.” She concluded that, “when this came to us, it was a done deal.”

Cesar Yoc, a board member and Mill Brook Houses resident, said he was initially hopeful for the project “because you could generate revenue. Now that I hear the $1 lease, I can’t accept anything.”

Yoc said that repairs in NYCHA’s rundown buildings should be the Authority’s main priority.

“You have to find a way to fix these elevators,” Yoc continued. “My mother’s 80. She has to walk up the stairs some times.”

Ted Weinstein, the director of Bronx planning for the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, however, countered that “there’s nothing unusual about $1. The main purpose of a project like this is that there’s an affordable housing crisis. People have asked for more housing for seniors.” To hook developers, he said, $1 leases are common.

Many complained that the plans do not take the surrounding neighborhood into account. A block from East 138th Street and the Major Deegan Expressway, the area around Mill Brook is crowded with cars, trucks, city buses and pedestrians, said Parks, adding that a lease that appears to give developers so much and residents so little is an unwelcome throwback to Mott Haven’s recent past.

“This is how we got stuck with the Harlem River Yards,” she said, referring to the oft-criticized 99-year lease struck between the state and the Galesi Group in the 1990s, which critics say enriches that developer and gives nothing back to the neighborhood.

Board members said Mill Brook Houses’s broken down buildings with 1,377 apartments should be razed and rebuilt. Board member Maura Cosme said the new project, similarly to others that have recently come before Board 1, seemed to involve “no thought process whatsoever,” about infrastructure. “There are no libraries, no schools, no hospitals,” she said.

In its NextGeneration NYCHA report, the Housing Authority estimates Mill Brook Houses’ five-year “physical needs” assessment at $119 million, and its five-year capital plan $8.9 million.

John Johnson, the South Bronx’s president of the Council of Presidents, the group of NYCHA resident leaders who convene regularly to discuss policies and problems in their complexes, said that the Housing Authority and the developer, the West Side Federation of Senior and Supportive Housing, are being disrespectful to Mill Brook tenants.

“You came with a detailed report about everything else, but you have nothing about the concerns of the residents?” said Johnson, adding that he and other tenant leaders are advising their fellow residents not to sign in when they attend NYCHA meetings, in defiance of the Housing Authority’s leadership.

“We’re going to start protesting,” he said, adding that the South Bronx’s red hot real estate market is fueling a deal frenzy that’s leaving many questions unanswered.

“Everybody’s selling us out,” Johnson said. “The Bronx is not burning anymore, so there’s a lot of backroom deals taking place that we are not privy to. We’re supposed to be at the table. You all continuously break the law,” by not approaching tenant leaders first to discuss development plans.

Loughlin deflected the criticism, countering that “we did an extensive visioning process,” with Mill Brook residents, which led to the decision to construct a seniors-only, deeply affordable building.

Paul Freitag, executive director and assistant secretary for the development company, drew sarcastic laughs when he apologized for a pending lawsuit in federal court that could reverse his group’s initial promise to include a 25 percent preference for local residents in the new project.

Board 1’s District Manager Cedric Loftin questioned the Housing Authority’s sincerity.

“There doesn’t appear to be any transparency here,” said Loftin, addressing the NYCHA official. “It wasn’t till the last minute before you showed up. And then there was false engagement.”

“The community’s house is in order. It’s NYCHA’s house that’s not in order,” he continued, before cautioning board members. “Everybody better step up. You’ll wake up, this land will be leased.”

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