NEW YORK — “Where the hell is HUD and money?”
Stanley Brezenoff, a career public servant in New York City since the 1970s, was deeply frustrated.
On Jan. 31, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Ben Carson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, struck a deal that subjected the New York City Housing Authority to federal oversight without any commitment of new federal funding.
“I think that it is not a good agreement for NYCHA and for the city,” Brezenoff, the departing NYCHA chairman, said in an interview. Brezenoff, an ally of de Blasio who was hailed in April by the mayor as “one of the great public servants in the last generation,” said he believed the deal was unfair.
It was bad for New Yorkers, he said, especially for the more than 400,000 who are living in dilapidated public housing riddled with problems, from leaks to heating issues and vermin. It let the federal government off the hook.
“I’m a city guy. If I care about anything in my professional life, it’s the well-being of New York City,” Brezenoff said. “Honestly, that’s the prism I was looking at it from. Starting from: Where the hell is HUD and money?”
After decades of reducing funds for NYCHA, the federal government was now blaming mismanagement by New York City for the resulting deterioration of NYCHA properties, and taking no financial responsibility.
Brezenoff refused to sign the paperwork. “The city and NYCHA have all the responsibility, limited authority and all of the financial burden,” he said. “That in a nutshell is why I’m against it.”
But Eric Phillips, the mayor’s press secretary, said the threat of federal receivership was “very real,” and it was not the time for brinkmanship.
“While the mayor respects Stan’s opinion and thanks him for his unrivaled legacy of public service, you don’t gamble or play a game of chicken when it’s your job to prevent Donald Trump from becoming the landlord of 400,000 public housing residents,” Phillips said.
A HUD spokesman did not respond to a message seeking comment.
The deal stops short of a full federal takeover of the city’s housing authority, something de Blasio opposed. In the announcement with Carson, de Blasio called it “a strong path forward and a very tangible path forward.” It includes the appointment of a powerful federal monitor — paid for by New York City — and a commitment from the city to spend an additional $2.2 billion over 10 years on repairs for its crumbling system of 175,000 public housing apartments. It also gives some authority to the federal housing secretary that is similar to a federal receiver, such as the ability to abrogate city contracts and go around Civil Service requirements.
“This is a receiver in everything but name,” Brezenoff said.
Because he refused to sign the deal, the general manager of NYCHA, Vito Mustaciuolo, did so in his place. On Tuesday, City Hall announced that Brezenoff would be replaced as interim chairman of NYCHA by the middle of the month. The city’s Sanitation Commissioner, Kathryn Garcia, was appointed to take over temporarily as officials hunt for a permanent leader.
When de Blasio named Brezenoff to lead the troubled public housing authority in April, he did so amid scandal over its failure to properly inspect for lead, and in the middle of a sprawling federal investigation.
Brezenoff, who by that point had already become the go-to Mr. Fix-It for de Blasio, took over weeks before the city and the authority moved to settle a case brought by the U.S. attorney, Geoffrey S. Berman, over dangerous conditions and endemic mismanagement at the authority.
Brezenoff, 81, said that he had felt some hope late last year after a federal judge rejected the terms of the initial deal between de Blasio and the U.S. attorney’s office. The judge, William H. Pauley III, strongly suggested that the federal government should take over New York City public housing, even as he chastised federal officials for abdicating their legal responsibility to the residents of the nation’s largest public housing system.
Brezenoff did not like the settlement but signed on because, he said, he had only recently arrived. When, several months later, he was presented with essentially the same deal — but one that gave even more powers to HUD — he said no.
“How is it possible for there to be this moralizing from the U.S. Attorney, as if NYCHA was a creature unto itself, not dependent on federal resources?” he said.
Experts on public housing have also placed the blame for NYCHA’s troubles on a lack of federal investment. Nicholas Dagen Bloom, a professor at the New York Institute of Technology who studies the Housing Authority, said the agreement — and the performance goals it sets out for NYCHA — could only be met with more money from Washington.
“To reach these goals in all of the categories they set, you’d have to start fixing everything everywhere, now. And that money is not there,” Bloom said. “If Congress doesn’t appropriate, you’re dealing with Whac-a-Mole.”
Brezenoff said that after the rejection of the settlement, he argued for the Housing Authority to come up with its own plan. He wanted to resist pressure from Carson, who late last year threatened to declare the authority in “substantial default,” which could lead to a takeover.
The federal government, Brezenoff said in the interview, “bears a lot of the responsibility and therefore should bear a good deal — in my view, all — of the financial burden.”
“Call their bluff,” said Brezenoff — a longtime poker player — speaking of the federal government. “You say: ‘You do it,'” he added, and without additional money from the city.
Brezenoff acknowledged that the decision was not his to make. He said that de Blasio “believes passionately” that there should be no federal takeover of any city responsibility.
“The mayor makes those calls, not me. I’m a soldier in that sense,” he said. “But I get to choose whether I stay or not.
“So I was ready to go.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.