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This group let public housing residents decide how the city should fix their apartments

Public housing residents are often ignored when their buildings undergo redevelopment. The Chelsea Working Group—a winner of Fast Company’s 2022 World Changing Ideas Awards—let residents be involved, a first for the New York City Housing Authority.

This group let public housing residents decide how the city should fix their apartments
[Photo: edichenphoto/Getty Images]

Much of the U.S.’s housing stock is quite old and aging fast: In New York, the median age of an owner-occupied home is 60 years. For public housing units, which are home to nearly a million people across the country, the problem is even more acute; more than half saw their last construction before 1975. As a result, many are in decrepit condition, and thousands of these apartments are removed from service every year because they’re not safe for occupants. Public housing complexes across the country are collectively staring down a more than $70 billion backlog in repairs, a staggering figure that jurisdictions simply don’t have the funds to pay. 

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Symbolizing this failure, in many ways, is the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), which in recent years became the target of a federal probe over its failure to provide tenants with “decent, safe, and sanitary” housing. In 2019 a federal monitor was appointed to oversee reform of housing conditions issues like lead paint hazards, mold growth, pest infestations, and lack of heat during winters, which affected more than 80% of the city’s public housing residents. At the Fulton and Elliott-Chelsea Houses in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, collectively home to 2,054 apartments, conditions were dire: the buildings need an estimated $366 million in repairs, and the city’s only plan was to rehome residents before demolishing and rebuilding both complexes, which would have displaced tenants for an undetermined amount of time.

[Photo: courtesy NYCHA]
Tenants loudly protested the proposal for months, and ultimately, NYCHA backed down, and instead sent representatives—along with members of then-mayor Bill de Blasio’s office, community board members, and elected officials—to meet with tenants and discuss their vision for redevelopment. Known as the Chelsea Working Group, members met almost weekly for 18 months, starting in the fall of 2019, to hash out a plan that would best reflect the community’s needs—the only time in NYCHA’s history that public housing residents were materially involved in construction plans for their homes. That culminated in a 108-page report published in February 2021 outlining the group’s recommendations for fixing the apartments.

“Residents should remain central to every decision that NYCHA makes for its properties, and [we] are honored to be part of a group that drove each step of the decision-making process to make a substantial, lasting impact on our communities,” Fulton Houses Tenant Association President Miguel Acevedo told Fast Company in a written statement. The Chelsea Working Group, a history-making public housing redevelopment plan that gave residents a real seat at the table, is the winner of the politics and policy category of Fast Company’s 2022 World Changing Ideas Awards.

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Although many public housing residents spend decades in the same home, developing tightly-knit relationships with neighbors that can become like family, revitalization projects more often than not feel as though they’re happening to tenants, not for them. Redevelopment can mean tenants are forced to move out of their homes for who knows how long, fraying important relationships and eroding trust in local leaders.

[Image: courtesy NYCHA]
In the Chelsea Working Group, tenants were involved in decisions big and small, ranging from which developer would lead construction to the color of their bathroom tile; the final plan will affect nearly 4,500 residents. The group eventually chose Essence Development and Related Development to pursue infill development, which will see 700 new units of housing built on four sites in the existing complexes. The Chelsea apartments will also convert to private management, a controversial decision in the community. (Not all decisions were unanimous among tenants, and several residents were unhappy with the final outcome, writing in an op-ed that the working group was “undemocratic.”)

But tenants were able to negotiate other additions, like choosing a new management company if the one they select doesn’t perform to residents’ standards. “I am incredibly proud of the Chelsea Working Group for our collaboration and determination to identify a partner that will most effectively meet our communities’ needs and improve our lives,” Darlene Waters, president of the Elliott-Chelsea Houses Tenant Association, wrote Fast Company. “Our voices have guided the conversation throughout the entire [process]. Bringing NYCHA residents to the table to make decisions gives us dignity, the power of choice and autonomy over our homes.”

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