Breathing Room: the Fight to Protect NYCHA’s Green Spaces

Brenda Temple has lived at Ocean Bay Apartments for nine years. (Photo by Kate Ryan for Voices of NY)

[Editor’s note: The story has been updated to clarify that NYCHA faces a $17 billion capital funding gap, rather than a deficit as previously stated.]

Cigarette in one hand, coffee in the other, Brenda Temple rests on the seat of her walker. After the trek from her apartment to the subway station, she needs to recharge.

The respite is short-lived.

As commuters approach the station Temple greets the first stranger, asking: “Are you aware of NYCHA’s NextGeneration plan?” She urges those who listen to sign a petition against a plan that she and community activists believe would destroy what little communal outdoor space exists in New York’s public housing developments.

Temple, 59, lives in the New York City Housing Authority’s Ocean Bay Apartments in Far Rockaway. Born and raised in public housing, she moved to Ocean Bay nine years ago with her son. When he moved out at 21, Temple turned her attention helping other youth in her community. Today, she fights fiercely for the playgrounds and park spaces where her son grew tall.

New York’s public housing for families in transition, those below the poverty line but on track to raise their quality of life, move out, and move on. Most NYCHA campuses were built between 1945 and 1965 and modeled after the “tower in the park” design, a cluster of high-rise buildings surrounded by green space and playgrounds for children.

The population grew, incomes lagged, and transitional housing became permanent. Today, more than 400,000 New Yorkers live in New York’s public housing, and the city is struggling to manage a behemoth. NYCHA faces a $17 billion in unmet capital needs, few ways to meet that gap, and no hope of more federal assistance from the Trump administration and a Republican congress. [NYCHA officials have learned that cuts in federal aid for this coming year will amount to at least $35 million and may go as high as $150 million, the Wall Street Journal reports.]

The NextGeneration plan, announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYCHA chair Shola Olatoye in 2015, proposed, among other solutions, to lease “underutilized” spaces such as parking lots or trash areas to raise funds. Later, playgrounds and green spaces were also designated as underutilized. The plan permits private developers to build on these spaces and rent apartments, some at market rates, some as “affordable” housing – hardly affordable, though, to the majority of NYCHA residents. NextGen says the revenue will go toward revitalizing the surrounding NYCHA buildings.

Private developers will break ground on this playground outside Holmes Towers in the fall. (Photo by Kate Ryan for Voices of NY)

Temple is a member of the Committee for Independent Community Action (CICA) led by activist Lenora Fulani, and the group is petitioning Mayor Bill de Blasio to stop NextGen. By February 2017, they had gathered 11,394 signatures from residents and non-residents opposed to the plan.

So far, the mayor has not responded to their letters or petitions.

CICA argues that these “underutilized” spaces are anything but. Children need playgrounds to develop, the elderly need green spaces for their mental and physical health, and communities need a central gathering space free of the air and noise pollution that comes with construction.

“Blow on my hands!” shrieks Karina Ramirez, 10, with glee, offering a shivering hand from her wet mitten. She’s covered in snow after a wrestling match and snow angel competition with her sister Sabrina outside Harlem’s Lincoln Houses. Her mother Marcia Ramirez plays along, warming her daughter’s hands before the next game. “I told her she’d be cold!”

Sabrina and Karina Ramirez make snow angels by a playground at Lincoln Houses. (Photo by Kate Ryan for Voices of NY)

Ramirez says her girls are too cooped up in their small apartment. They need the playground and a place to run, she says. Lincoln Houses are an example of NYCHA space that is kept up and well-used. “It’s an essential part of the community, especially in the summer,” says Brendon Rodriguez, 20. “There are picnics and community gatherings with free food. For people with less money, that’s important.”

What’s more, the pool and the basketball court are the most popular gathering spaces for youth. “People really know each other here,” says Rodriguez.

Forty blocks south, Holmes Towers resident Maggie Tapia, 55, bemoans the condition of the building she lives in. “I know a girl on the 25th floor whose wall literally cries when you touch it,” she said, speaking of the water droplets and mold in that apartment. “Her son gets a nosebleed when he uses the bathroom.”

Tapia suffers from lupus and respiratory ailments. She says that is common in her mold-infested building. The playground in front of her building offers residents some relief, but it’s set to become a high-rise for which construction begins this September. “We already suffer from rats and dust from the subway,” she says. “What is construction just feet from my window going to bring?”

Maggie Tapia walks her dogs outside Holmes Towers. (Photo by Kate Ryan for Voices of NY)

Tapia understands why her site was one of the first selected by NYCHA. “This is a low-crime area,” she says. “There’s plenty of grocery shopping options. The bus is right there, and there’s the new subway.” But the idea that a site with so many structural problems will stand next to new apartments out of her price range hurts. “They say it will be affordable housing. Who is it affordable for?”

NYCHA’s Request for Proposals from developers calls for “a transparent resident engagement process,” and Tapia, for one, started attending NextGen meetings “to hear both sides of the story.” But she said residents are not really part of the conversation.

NYCHA representatives say they’re trying to be responsive. “There is no cookie cutter approach,” said Deborah Goddard, NYCHA’s executive vice president of capital projects and the office of design. “Each site is different. Varying community age, family size, etc. We need to mediate with residents.”

Temple, for her part, says the petitions she labors to get people to sign have been enough to push City Council representatives to meet with residents, but the conversation, she said, is always one-sided. “This is what we’re doing. Either get on board, or get out.”

Dorothy Williams [not her real name], 61, is one of Temple’s signatories this morning. She’s hoping that developers will offer more benches and better walkways. “If you’re building things up,” she says, “make it work for us.”

Williams is one-year breast cancer free and recovering from a double knee replacement. She walks the grounds every day and in that respect, she is different from much of the aging community around her. According to a study released by NYCHA, “Health of Older Adults in New York City Public Housing,” 31 percent of senior residents reported no physical activity in the last month.

Holmes Towers is 25 stories high with a view of the surrounding neighborhood. The new 20-30 story building will block its view. (Photo by Kate Ryan for Voices of NY)

“Lower income adults are likely to age faster, to develop degenerative diseases and conditions,” says Tracy Chippendale, an occupational therapy and aging expert at NYU. The ideal space for an aging population? A safe, green space filled with walkable areas with places to rest, says Chippendale – precisely the areas targeted for development in the NextGen plan.

Even parking lots – not as attractive as green spaces, to be sure, but precious to NYCHA residents for other reasons – are slated for removal under the revenue-making plan.

Right now, a NYCHA car owner can reserve an outdoor parking space at a cost of $340 annually. Lose that space, and the struggle for on-street parking will escalate.

A NYCHA worker at Wyckoff Gardens points to the fenced off parking lot marked for construction. “People here work,” he says. “They can’t be moving their cars in the middle of the day or when street cleaners come.” He says the loss of the lot will create traffic, and people will be towed.

Parking tickets in the area range from $35 to $115 in fees, depending on the infraction. With an average of a $75 ticket, after five parking violations, a resident would pay more than the cost of parking on-site for the entire year.

Putting parking lots on the chopping block may not seem like a big deal, but activist Fulani says, “It’s just one thing after the other, which says to people ‘You don’t mean anything. We don’t really give a damn what happens to you.”

Fulani is calling on non-residents to speak out about this injustice. “We need a movement,” says Fulani. “And it’s not just made up of the people who live in NYCHA, but it’s made up of the people who live around the city who care about inequality, who care about the poor, and who are joining them in pushback.”

NYCHA is proposing that community rooms – open to both NYCHA residents and new tenants of the new buildings – be opened on the first floor of the new buildings, saying they will promote community engagement and perhaps combat the loss of play space.

This parking lot at Wyckoff Gardens has already been fenced off for building construction. The adjacent playgrounds are padlocked as well. (Photo by Kate Ryan for Voices of NY)

But losing precious outdoor spaces to newcomers can easily create animosity toward newcomers, warns Karen Franck, professor of architecture at the New Jersey Institute for Technology and an expert in environmental psychology. “The mentality becomes, ‘We had to sacrifice our space so you could move in here,’” she says. “It’s an invasion, not integration.”

Brenda Temple has two more pages of signatures to bring to her Community Action meeting tonight. She slowly walks back to her apartment to make lunch.

Her home is warm. Pictures and cards hang everywhere, and the floral curtains that hide storage nooks add a pop of color amidst the beige. Temple’s fridge leaks, and her 1960s stove has only one working burner. She’s asked for new appliances, but, “They said they’re out of ovens right now.”

Meanwhile, plans for implementing NextGen are proceeding. At least three groundbreakings are scheduled for this year, and the city doesn’t seem willing to compromise on its approach to NYCHA’s revitalization.

This doesn’t deter Temple, who plans to keep fighting.

“We’re the drivers, cleaners, assistant teachers, crossing guards,” says Temple. “We’re the grease that makes the wheels run. We need a place to raise our families.”

Kate Ryan is in the 2017 class of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

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