New York City Housing Authority with Polina Bakhteiarov
by Polina Bakhteiarov
May 3, 2018
This interview with Polina Bakhteiarov, the Deputy Director for Real Estate Development at NYCHA [New York City Housing Authority], was conducted and condensed by frank news. It took place April 24, 2018, in New York City.
Can you tell us about yourself and how you found yourself at NYCHA?
I was born in Moscow, Russia, came to the States as a child and grew up in Massachusetts. I ended up going to MIT and doing a five year program where I did double undergraduate degrees in Urban Planning, City Planning and Civil Engineering, and then a master's in City Planning.
I came to MIT wanting to do bioengineering, having no idea what that was. My freshman year was the year after Katrina, and I was walking down the hallway at school one evening, and this flier caught my eye. It was a discussion about recovery and resilience in New Orleans post Katrina, hosted by a professor named J. Philip Thompson. I was like, wow! I had been interested in what happened, what was going on in New Orleans at the time and wanted to go down there, but my mother was like, “no, you're not going anywhere”, I was 17. So I went to this forum to see what it was all about.
I walked into that forum and learned there was this field called "city planning", which I had no idea existed. When I discovered city planning it was like this new world opened up for me.
Phil ended up being my adviser and longtime mentor. He just got elected Deputy Mayor for strategic policy initiatives across the street. So we're looking to partner in a new way at this new stage of the game.
Tell us about NHYCA.
New York City New York City Housing Authority, NYCHA, we call it the acronym, is a huge organization, about 10,000-11,000 employees. We're technically part of the city of New York government, but we're also federal, so we’re in this strange purgatory of being funded by the Feds, but then reliant on City Hall.
NYCHA is the largest residential landlord in North America. We have about 2,000-2,500 buildings, and about 2,500 acres of land that comprises around 320 developments of various sizes. Small developments can be a walk up, then the largest development is Queensbridge, which has 3,000-4,000 units and about 7,000 people who live there. The scale is vast. We also corner about 8 percent of the rental market in NYC. We have a lot of untapped power which is very interesting for me because my I'm starting to get into the area of public asset management, and public finance, and how we can better leverage our public assets to generate additional income. Not just within the NYCHA world, but in government in general.
It's really started to pique my interest, especially because of the federal conversation, for better or worse, around infrastructure. Regardless of the motives, and even the mechanics of that conversation, there is still a legitimate point around the fact that we don't leverage our public assets, bridges, roads, airports convention centers etc.
How you would like to leverage NYCHA's assests?
One of the ways we do it now is through our infill program. We have two programs. We have what we call "100 Percent Affordable Program", and then we have the, "NYCHA Next Generation Action Neighborhoods Program", or the "50/50" program. In both of those programs we identify underutilized or vacant land within our development campuses for a new construction project. On the 100 percent affordable side, we build a building and all the units are up to 165 percent AMI [area median income], so there's different levels of affordability there.
On the 50/50 side, same concept. Identify a plot of land that’s developable, and when we construct a building, 50 percent of the units are affordable, and 50 percent are market rate. We take the revenue from the deal and reinvest a portion into the development on which the new building has been constructed, and then the other portion goes to the highest need development. The ones in the worst conditions, and in need of investment in systems, grounds etc.
That's like putting our toe in the water. Taking the intrinsic value of our developments and figuring out how to extract that value, and then reinvest it back in.
The reason we reinvest is because right now, we're at about a $17 billion capital backlog, and that number is climbing up into the $20 billion and $30 billion range. That is how much it would take for us to fulfill all of the capital needs of all 300+ developments. We just got $160 million in the capital budget, which was celebrated as a huge win. That's like a couple of developments. It's a drop in the bucket of what we need.
In order to be truly able to put any type of dent into that huge number, that keeps on rising, we have to get creative.
Is the 50/50 housing model working?
We have not actually constructed the building yet. That was rolled out in 2015 under the Next Gen NYCHA strategic plan, which is a 10 year initiative. The mayor is very aggressive in his housing goals, and he wanted to pilot this new structure, and this new framework.
There's been a lot of controversy around the program. A lot of political backlash, a lot of resistance from residents. And really, the question that residents have is, how is this the only way for us to be able to get the additional revenue that we need?
What were the main points of anger towards the 50/50 idea?
The biggest fear is gentrification. You're bringing folks who can afford a market rate apartment in some of the hottest neighborhoods in New York City (Upper East Side, Prospect Heights, Williamsburg, Lower East Side). So gentrification is the biggest issue. The fear of rising rents and displacement, although that still bleeds into the new construction side, because residents oftentimes see a new building as an indicator that change is coming and folks are going to be pushed out.
The other issue is the destruction with the construction. The destruction of folks daily lives and how the new building will impact the lay out of the development, the neighborhood, what these new folks coming to live there bring. The cultural implications. There are a lot of considerations we're working through with residents in that process.
We're trying to continue to expand our thinking. One of the areas that we are now exploring preliminarily is selling air rights because it would really, really change the game for us.
How does that work, and how do you go about getting that approved?
A couple of things. One is the federal process. We have to figure out if HUD will allow us to do this, because it is still a transaction. We've been talking with with HUD about how to do that. It seems like everyone is fairly excited about it. Residents like that strategy because there's no construction, it doesn't disturb their daily lives. Politically, I think that it could really be a win for both the legislative and executive branch because again, it's really a cash cow for NYCHA with a very minimal administrative burden.
Do you anticipate backlash with that program, because you would in essence be throwing an issue onto another person? The idea of changing the New York City Landscape, the idea of environmental impact? The buildings you sell to, exceeding what they should be exceeding.
The buyer of the rights would only be able to use them to the extent that the zoning for their parcel, or parcels, allows. They would still have to go through every process on the city and state level with regard to environmental review. Every other type of testing that needs to get done in order for them to pull their permit. They would not be able to bypass any of that.
All we're giving them is an ability to increase their footprint upwards, up to the allowable zoning.
Okay, got it.
I want to talk about what I do, which is on the preservation side of things.
The purpose of our team is to structure public-private partnerships in order to preserve public housing in the long term. The main tool that we use is Rental Assistance Demonstration. It's an Obama administration initiative that began around 2011, and is really a way to open up new avenues of capital, coming into a development that's prohibited within the public housing framework.
Public housing developments cannot carry debt. We cannot get any type of private financing in order to rehabilitate a public housing development.
What RAD allows us to do is switch the funding for public housing developments from public housing, what we call Section 9, to Section 8 housing choice vouchers.
It's an in place conversion, meaning that literally all we do is hit a switch, and the subsidy that flows into that particular building, switches from Section 9 into Section 8.
What that allows us to do, is go to the markets and bring in additional capital for that development, which was previously prohibited from us.
Our program focuses, once we get that financing package, on three pillars. The first one is a very substantial rehabilitation of the development under the federal guidelines. We have to address the 20 year capital needs of that development. We also switched the management to a private property management company which allows for streamlined property management, and also allows residents to revisit the conversation around house rules, which is something that NYCHA used to enforce very strictly back in the day. Over the past couple of decades it's really deteriorated. A lot of residents, in the forms that I've engaged with them, complain that there are no standards for how these communities are supposed to function. The last piece is around social services delivery. With the conversion we also bring in an onsite social services provider to really increase the services that folks are receiving in the development, tailored to the needs of that particular community.
Where does this work fit in under the larger umbrella of “planning”?
The great thing about planning is that it can be defined in so many different ways. For me, I see us focused on the housing aspect of planning. We are definitely very implementation focused. We obviously rely on planning studies and analyses that are done by our colleagues at the Department of City Planning, housing preservation, and development, and even internally have folks that do planning oriented analyses. But we're really focused on the implementation. We're looking at how we choose the developments that go through the Section 8 conversions.
We do look at it from a planning lens. We're looking at neighborhood context. One of the things that I've been looking to to add to that particular planning process, for our preservation pipeline, is that particular piece. When we first started the pipeline planning for RAD, it was really based off of financial feasibility. What we were doing was taking developments that were in some local proximity to each other geographically, and figuring out how to make them work financially. Because we're bundling developments together, we're not doing one at a time in order to get efficiencies. That's a great baseline, but there are other factors that we have to take into account when we do this planning.
There's also the piece around political planning.
We're going through the whole pipeline development by development, and we're talking about all of these different considerations beyond financial feasibility, and the capitol needs, to figure out what is actually feasible, and where are we not going to get torched at the stake.
What is NYCHA’s ultimate goal?
Our ultimate goal is to dig ourselves out of the $17 billion hole. We've lost our identity as a landlord, because that's really what we are. We house 1 in 14 New Yorkers. We have about 400,000 people in public housing, an additional 200,000-250,000 via the Section 8 program. We really need to get back to that identity, of being a strong landlord.
The only way that we're going to get it, is if we chip away at the huge capital backlog that we've fallen into, due to decades of federal and state disinvestment.