Council readies for legal battle against public housing land development

Update October 10: The City Council has filed suit against the New York City Housing Authority, along with tenants’ associations of the Baruch and Douglass Houses and two other plaintiffs.

Joined by fellow members, Council Speaker Christine Quinn is taking steps to wage legal action against the Bloomberg administration’s controversial plan to lease city Housing Authority property for new real estate development.

On Monday, the council’s Committee on Public Housing adopted a resolution, co-sponsored by Quinn, that urges the speaker to challenge on legal grounds the call for development ideas that the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) issued earlier this year as part of its so-called land-lease plan.

Mayor Bloomberg has championed the development agenda as a way to bring in funds for the financially strained New York City Housing Authority, whose government-owned projects are home to about 400,000 low-income New Yorkers.

A parking lot at Manhattan's Frederick Douglass Houses, slated as a development site under a New York City Housing Authority plan. Photo: Sebastien Malo

A parking lot at Manhattan’s Frederick Douglass Houses, slated as a development site under a New York City Housing Authority plan. Photo: Sebastien Malo

The resolution authorizes the City Council to bring or join in a legal case to be filed against NYCHA, either as a plaintiff or via a friend-of-the-court brief. While the resolution is not technically required in order for the council to take legal action, members typically vote on whether to approve involvement in lawsuits.

The Legal Aid Society, which began providing legal counsel to residents in affected housing projects earlier this year, confirms that it intends to file a lawsuit in connection with the Housing Authority’s move to develop the sites.

“As we know some advocates may file a case, so we’ll take a look,” said councilwoman Rosie Mendez, who heads the Committee on Public Housing. “If it’s appropriate for us to join their case then we’ll do that.”

Added Mendez, “If it’s more appropriate for us to join our own litigation, then we’ll do that.”

The resolution now goes to a vote before the full City Council at its meeting on Wednesday.

Under the Bloomberg administration’s public housing land development plan, real estate firms would lease sites within eight Manhattan developments for 99 years and build at least 4,300 new market-rate apartments there. That would bring in a projected $30 to $50 million in annual revenue, according to NYCHA, but the proposal has prompted objections from tenants’ rights advocates wary of gentrification and other consequences.

The maneuver to block the development plan keeps alive a campaign cause championed by Quinn and other mayoral candidates in the Democratic primary. That includes nominee Bill de Blasio, currently commanding a significant lead in the polls, who has said he would drop the NYCHA development plan if elected mayor.

Quinn’s 11th-hour gambit to halt a development scheme widely assumed to be dead puzzled Julia Vitullo-Martin, a senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association who observes government’s role in real estate development.

“It does seem a little odd that the council is going after a moribund target,” she said.

At the same time, she added, development of the public housing sites ought to remain on the table. “Isn’t a new mayor entitled to consider a full range of options on NYCHA’s very serious financial problems?”

Quinn herself acknowledged the mayor’s plan was all but finished when the Bloomberg administration announced in August it was seeking non-binding “expressions of interest” from developers, not formal proposals. Submissions are due in November.

“This isn’t quite a white flag of surrender, but it’s pretty close,” Quinn said at the time.

The mayor’s office declined to comment on the City Council’s plans.

Councilmember Mendez said the actions of the speaker and of the public housing committee remained necessary to prevent the project from proceeding should de Blasio lose.

“The reality is we don’t know who the next mayor is going to be and we want the City Council to have a role in what happens in our public housing land,” Mendez said. “I’ve got no clue what a Joe Lhota would do.”

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