Friday, May 6, 2011

City owes Mott Haven tenants jobs, advocates contend

The New York City Housing Authority has reneged on a decade-old commitment to put job-hungry tenants to work making the buildings they live in cleaner and healthier, according to housing advocates.

Advocacy groups in the South Bronx are trying to change that.

A tinny voice called out from a windy sidewalk to residents in Mott Haven’s Mitchel Houses in mid-April, persuading them to join a march through the neighborhood to pressure the city to provide them with green jobs.“Yeah you, looking out your windows,” shouted Cerita Parker of Longwood-based housing advocacy group Mothers on the Move, through a megaphone. “This is for you.”

“If you live in NYCHA housing, you have a right to NYCHA jobs,” she continued. “That’s a right, not a privilege.”

Activists are demanding Housing Authority officials live up to a 2001 commitment to spend 15 percent of the agency’s labor costs putting tenants to work on renovation and construction projects in the buildings they live in.

In a 2004 audit, the city’s Comptroller’s office found the agency had put barely half that amount into its Resident Employee Program. Then, in a 2008 follow-up audit, the Comptroller found that the Housing Authority had fully addressed only one of six recommendations it had made following the earlier audit.

“A serious lack of NYCHA management oversight and commitment to the [program] resulted in program goals not being achieved,” read the 2008 report. “By not enforcing REP requirements, NYCHA allowed contractors to largely ignore the REP provision of their contracts.

But last year, when advocates approached NYCHA’s Environmental Coordinator, Margarita Lopez, requesting the city follow through on its pledge to create green jobs, “she told us, ‘we’re not an employment agency,’” says Nova Strachan of Mothers on the Move.

Members of Mothers on the Move say they have tried unsuccessfully to get a meeting with Lopez since October.
Housing Authority officials did not respond to requests for comment at press time.

More than two-thirds of public housing tenants responding to a survey conducted by Mothers on the Move and the Urban Justice Center earlier this year said they want jobs that would help improve housing conditions and air quality. Nearly all identified poor air quality as a factor contributing to health problems in their buildings.

Cockroaches, rats and mold, all of which are prevalent in NYCHA buildings, are known asthma triggers. Hospitalization rates for Bronx children under five with asthma were more than triple those of their Manhattan counterparts in 2008, the last year for which statistics from the state’s Department of Health are available.

The Bronx unemployment rate, 12.7% as of February, is more than three percent higher than the national average, and over five percent higher than Manhattan’s, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor.

A.D. Wade moved to the Mitchel Houses 15 years ago, and was diagnosed with asthma ten years later.“I can’t leave the house without this pump,” he said, holding up an inhaler.

Nathaniel Jones, a job-hunting former resident of the Mitchel Houses who stopped at the rally to take a brochure, said the two children he raised there were both diagnosed with asthma while infants.

Nova Strachan says employing NYCHA tenants to fix up their buildings would reduce triggers for disease in the buildings, while addressing job needs.

But while a green jobs initiative would be mutually beneficial, she maintains, residents should be hired for long-term jobs they can later parlay into private sector opportunities, rather than the kind of short-term jobs NYCHA has previously provided.

“We need more than a two or three-month job. It needs to be a career,” she said. “It seems like these jobs are setting people up for failure.”

New report says hiring NYCHA tenants for green jobs, repairs would lower unemployment, save money

Green jobs could be the silver bullet for problems faced by New York City Housing Authority residents, from drafty windows and moldy bathrooms to obesity, according to a new report by South Bronx community groups.

Training and hiring hundreds of residents to build green roofs, make repairs and install energy-efficient appliances would save NYCHA money, reduce unemployment and improve public health, the report stated.

"Green jobs are a win-win," said Nova Strachan, housing organizer for Mothers on the Move. "People that live in public housing need jobs and our public housing developments need repairs."

NYCHA residents in the South Bronx lack access to leafy public spaces and supermarkets with fresh produce, according to the report. Green roofs built and tended by residents could address both problems.

"There's a reason we call the projects the concrete jungle," said Yves Filius, 26, a Mott Haven Houses resident.

Based on surveys by Mothers on the Move and the Urban Justice Center, the report urged NYCHA to launch a South Bronx Green Jobs Institute. It claims the agency could start by training 500 residents to retrofit NYCHA buildings, requiring a $5 million investment, with $1.2 million coming back to the agency in rent from newly employed residents.

Projects could include installing new ventilation systems and fixing leaks that lead to asthma-aggravating mold. The institute would help pay for itself through energy savings, said Lindsay Cattell of the Urban Justice Center.

But NYCHA is facing a $42 million deficit and can't afford to operate an institute of its own, said Margarita Lopez, the agency's environmental coordinator.

Only 6% of unemployed NYCHA residents have college degrees and the number of households owing the agency back rent is on the rise, according to the report. Of residents surveyed, 97% were interested in green jobs.

But NYCHA already boasts green programs, Lopez said. It has purchased tens of thousands of new appliances, trained residents to plant trees and begun a $371 million push to retrofit its buildings, even hiring residents to green the Castle Hill Houses.

"NYCHA has changed the way we do business," said Lopez, calling it "a green machine for jobs."

The agency has created 200 jobs for South Bronx residents since August 2009, but "is not the Department of Labor" and must focus on housing, Lopez said.