The city’s public housing authority is getting back to work on a long-planned move: converting many complexes to private management. 

But residents — some of whom may be temporarily displaced as apartments are overhauled — say they are being kept in the dark, aggravating anxieties already running high in the pandemic.

At a small New York City Housing Authority building in Kips Bay, among the first in Manhattan to be converted, tenants say they have few answers to key questions. Among them: How will new leases work, and will tenants vulnerable to COVID-19 have to move while renovation work is done?

Melanie Aucello, the Tenant Association president at 344 E. 28th St., told THE CITY confusion and a lack of information about the process has led to “total abject fear” among the residents.

“We’re not on board with this,” she said.

Some are so frustrated, they’re planning to boycott a building-wide meeting planned for Tuesday by the new private manager at the complex, PACT Renaissance Collaborative, or PRC.

The meeting is intended to be the first in a series of virtual town hall meetings set by PRC at eight other complexes across the borough over the next three weeks.

Nearly 3,000 units of public housing in Manhattan are set to be turned over to new management this year, among the 62,000 set to be converted in a multi-year plan for private companies to renovate NYCHA properties known as RAD or PACT.

“I feel very strongly that if we set the precedent — if they run a train over us and do whatever they want, and we just sit back and take it — this is going to happen to every other development,” Aucello said.

‘Hospitality Suites’ on Tap

In a statement, NYCHA spokesperson Rochel Leah​ Goldblatt said PRC is organizing the Tuesday event “to let all residents know the status of the project and answer resident questions,” adding that if residents have concerns, “we encourage them to attend this meeting so we can discuss and address them.”

In PRC’s presentation for Tuesday’s meeting, shared with THE CITY, the group says it plans to renovate kitchens and bathrooms, repair the roof, facade and elevators and add a security system, among other improvements.

But residents of the complex say snafus have already left them with little trust in NYCHA or PRC to get these jobs done without problems.

Aucello has fielded calls from her neighbors for months about issues with the upcoming changes, she said. Before COVID-19, workers with no identification would harass tenants to do pre-conversion inspections, she said. 

Then after a series of complaints, she pushed PRC to pause inspections the first week of March. Work has halted since, due to the pandemic.

And seniors in the building, some who speak only Spanish or Mandarin, are concerned they will be kicked out of their units while work is done, Aucello said.

Goldblatt said some residents may need to temporarily leave their apartments during the day during construction, but that “hospitality suites will be made available” to those tenants who want to leave while work takes place.

Worry Over Lease Issues

Leases are also a major cause of concern, tenants said. 

Aida Gonzalez, who has lived in the complex for 49 years, said she filled out paperwork last year with a legal services group whose representatives came to the building to help tenants properly fill out apartment leases ahead of the conversion. 

Gonzalez and her three grandchildren were on her lease, but her ex-husband — who has lived with her since suffering a heart attack last year — was not.

According to the RAD Handbook, all additional household members, pets and appliances should be added to an apartment’s lease before private managers take over the building.

The lawyers Gonzalez worked with said her ex would be allowed to stay. But when she spoke with NYCHA about the issue recently, she said she was told there was no record of the lease change.

“They said ‘We don’t know nothing about that.’ So, what do I do?” she said.

Her sister, Rosa Mitchell, who also lives in the building, had a similar issue. She filled out paperwork last year, she said, to put her 24-year-old grandson on her lease. But when she spoke with a staffer from NYCHA this spring, she was informed the young man wasn’t on the lease. 

“That happened in May,” she said. “I’m not going to throw my grandson out in the street with COVID-19 all over the place.”

Tenant association president Melanie Aucello says she found mice dropping on donated food stored in their community room, July 16, 2020. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Before anything else moves forward, Aucello said she wants to iron out all of the issues tenants have been dealing with for months, including getting legal help.

“There’s a constant fear of being terminated and being retaliated against,” she said. “Nobody wants that.”

Goldblatt said that after Tuesday’s meeting, Legal Aid will reach out to residents “to answer questions about the conversion, new leases, and generally offering legal services in connection with the conversion.”

Tenants will be asked to sign new leases leading up to a closing of the project in late October, she said, and “all tenants will be given access to Legal Aid services and will not be expected to sign a lease without first consulting with a Legal Aid attorney.”

Legal Aid didn’t immediately respond to request for comment.

Tom Corsillo, a spokesperson for PRC, said in a statement: “Our commitment to every resident of 344 East 28th Street is to continue to listen to, support, and partner with them to ensure their needs are met, and to meet the high standards that we hold ourselves to and that these residents deserve.”

Just the Beginning

The residents of East 28th Street are not alone. By the end of 2028, about a third of NYCHA’s entire housing portfolio will be converted to private management, under current plans.

The program has sharply divided tenants, according to a new report from the Community Service Society, a housing advocacy group. CSS surveyed 285 public housing residents about RAD/PACT in 2019 and found that only a slim majority supported the plan, with 56% saying they favor or “favor strongly” the conversion idea.

But many tenants strongly opposed the idea. Vic Bach, the lead author on the CSS report, said the findings do not “bode well for NYCHA.”

The report found the most common reason for not supporting PACT: a fear of gentrification that could eventually push out longtime residents.

The report found the most common reason for not supporting privatization: a fear of gentrification.

Under PACT, however, private managers of NYCHA property are prohibited from jacking up rents to market rates or replacing existing tenants with renters willing to pay higher prices.

According to the RAD Handbook, co-written by CSS and Legal Aid, all residents have the right to stay in their apartments after conversion, and any vacancies that happen after conversion will be filled from the Section 8 waiting list.

“Your development will not be ‘gentrified,’” the handbook reads.

Aucello sees both sides: the fears, as well as the acute need to make improvements to her crumbling building and others like it.

“I’m 100% for improving the conditions of life and living here,” she said. “I just want it to be done in a manner that’s safe — and that in 20 years we’re not facing eviction.”