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Nearly a year after signing off on federal oversight of New York’s ailing public housing system, U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Benjamin Carson declared he’s hearing less “horrible things” about NYCHA.

Carson argued Wednesday there’s been “substantial improvement” at the city Housing Authority — even as it’s blown numerous deadlines on tackling a fix-it list that recently hit $42 billion.

“There will continue to be issues because it’s a deep, ingrained problem,” Carson said in remarks to reporters after opening a HUD-sponsored community program called Envision in East Harlem. “But there’s substantial improvement in the management. I’m very happy to see that. I’m happy to see the cooperation that has developed.”

Carson signed the agreement with NYCHA and City Hall on Jan. 31, 2019, approving the appointment of a federal monitor to begin a deep-dive into the authority’s management problems.

The deal followed a civil complaint filed by federal prosecutors detailing how NYCHA has for years lied about and covered up poor conditions within its 174,000 apartments, home to more than 400,000 New Yorkers.

Optional Deadlines

The agreement held NYCHA to several specific mileposts to address everything from inspecting apartments for lead paint to eradicating rats to repairing busted elevators.

Since the deal was inked, NYCHA has blown several promised deadlines, previous reporting by THE CITY has shown.

NYCHA Federal Monitor Bart Schwartz speaks at a community advisory meeting, Oct. 7, 2019. Credit: Screenshot from NYCHA Monitor/YouTube

As THE CITY first reported, NYCHA missed its August 2019 deadline to end rodent infestations in developments where tenants were filing repeat complaints about the critters. Officials have since added more staff and are working with the federal monitor on a more realistic schedule to get the job done.

In July, the monitor, Bart Schwartz, found NYCHA had fallen short in its pledge to check for lead paint in thousands of apartments where young children live — even as the number of youth with lead poisoning rose last year.

And after prosecutors found NYCHA workers routinely covered up unsafe housing conditions before HUD inspectors showed up, NYCHA promised this practice would end. But THE CITY disclosed in November that, over the previous few months, three workers had been suspended and three more retrained for the same shady and dangerous behavior.

Fewer ‘Horrible Things’

In his remarks Wednesday, Carson conceded, “We still have a long way to go. We still need to make sure that the lead problem is taken care of. We still need to make sure that the elderly are properly looked after.”

But he said the arrival of the federal monitor and NYCHA’s new chairperson, Gregory Russ — appointments he signed off on — had led to increased cooperation.

Gregory Russ left the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority last year to lead NYCHA. Credit: Minneapolis Public Housing Authority

“I’m hearing a lot less about horrible things going on in the NYCHA apparatus. That’s very encouraging,” he said.

A key issue for NYCHA remains federal funding. HUD pays for nearly 70% of NYCHA’s operating costs and 90% of its big-ticket “capital project” upgrades, such as new roofs. In HUD’s 2020 budget proposal, the federal contribution for public housing capital funding was zeroed out.

U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn) has sponsored a bill to steer $70 billion back to public housing repair needs. The bill is before the House Financial Services Committee, while a Senate version is being sponsored by presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

‘It Is So Complicated’

On Wednesday, Carson said he expects the capital funding number will change, noting that last year Congress restored about $2.8 billion of that money, a 4% increase from the previous year.

“Public housing is going to be taken care of,” said Carson.

In December, Russ revealed that the estimated total cost to bring NYCHA’s 320 developments up to code is now at $42 billion — up from a $32 billion estimate floated in 2017.

On Tuesday, Russ conceded the growing cost is partly due to the promised upgrades — including $2 billion on lead paint — included in the Jan. 31, 2019, agreement with HUD.

“I guess the message I’d like to leave you with is, it is so complicated, but this is not impossible,” he said at a breakfast sponsored by Crain’s New York Business.

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