Harlem — For Henrietta Bishop, 58, St. Nicholas Houses—a sprawling public housing development (pop. 3,000) comprised of more than a dozen 14-story buildings in central Harlem—is the only place that she's ever called home. A smile crosses her face as she recalls attending concerts at the nearby Apollo Theater during the early 1970s ("You really got a complete show," she says). And she's equally jovial as her thoughts turn to fellow longtime tenants, including a woman in her 80s who Bishop calls her "spiritual mother." But these days, Bishop's sunny disposition is being put to the test by long-running woes at "St. Nick."

At first glance, St. Nick's maladies are fully visible inside Bishop's 10th floor two-bedroom apartment, which she's currently sharing with her daughter and a granddaughter. The drab living room walls sorely need a fresh coat of paint. Elsewhere, the scruffy and discolored flooring is beginning to show evidence of wear and tear. Yet for Bishop, both are relatively minor annoyances compared to more pressing concerns. Earlier this summer, she found herself stuck for nearly an hour inside one of the building's hazard-prone elevators. And because the building's intercom system is inoperable, the main entrance door is unlocked. "Sometimes when I get home late from work, I see somebody standing by the door," she says. "Should I go in? I'm a little skeptical because I don't always know who's who."

After a Daily News series probed the New York City Housing Authority's spending practices—from the six-figure salaries of several board members to $42 million in unspent City Council funds earmarked since 2004 for the installation of security cameras at several housing developments — a broad coalition of elected officials, policymakers, and housing advocates demanded widespread changes to the nation's largest public housing system. NYCHA Chairman John Rhea, who was appointed by the mayor in 2009, announced in early August that NYCHA would support future state legislation overhauling its board. With the exception of its chairman, the remaining seats in the proposed five-member panel would be unsalaried. Additionally, the board would reserve two seats for NYCHA residents.

But advocates for NYCHA tenants are pushing for different reforms—ones that give public housing residents more power to challenge an authority that, as it fights for survival, is considering significant changes to what public housing means in New York.

More than money

Last year, Community Voices Heard, a grassroots group in Harlem that advocates for affordable housing, published a poll of more than 1,400 residents at 71 public housing developments citywide. In 10 out of 26 categories, ranging from maintenance and repairs to management, NYCHA received a failing grade.

Bishop, for one, wonders if NYCHA worsened delays by adding another layer of bureaucracy with its Centralized Calling Center system, which was adopted in 2005 to field requests for repairs. "Now you've got to call a number and they give you a ticket number to make an appointment," she says. "So my apartment is about to flood and you're talking about a ticket number? It doesn't make any sense. I wish I understood what they're doing."

Many of NYCHA's detractors concede that the agency faces a daunting task in serving roughly 400,000 low-income New Yorkers who live in subsidized housing. With a sizable stock of aging buildings dating back to the 1940s and '50s, the cost for maintaining those properties has risen sharply in recent years. Meanwhile, the number of struggling families on the waiting list for public housing apartments and Section 8 rental assistance continues to swell. And it's happening at a time when federal spending on public housing nationwide has been decreasing. NYCHA, for instance, estimates that Congress has reduced funding for its operations by $23 million in the current fiscal cycle when compared to last year.

"Public housing isn't popular in Congress and generally gets short shrift. The funding that it receives will be even lower in the forthcoming year because of the deficit reduction agreement that was reached in Washington and the budget cuts that will be coming to domestic programs," explains Victor Bach, senior housing policy analyst at the Community Service Society of New York (CSS)—a research and advocacy group (and parent company of City Limits). "Obviously NYCHA can't survive as it is."

Nor is the political environment for NYCHA getting any friendlier. Brooklyn Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries has called for a congressional investigation of NYCHA. Meanwhile, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa has launched a probe into the circumstances surrounding the hiring of Boston Consulting Group (BCG) to analyze NYCHA operations. BCG was selected to conduct the study through a no-bid contract. As City Limits first reported last fall, BCG formerly employed Rhea, though the connection was not mentioned on Rhea's official biography.

But public housing residents have a different set of concerns than the BCG deal—some of them related to steps NYCHA is contemplating in response to its fiscal crisis.

In early August, for instance, dozens of tenants protested outside of the authority's Manhattan headquarters. The demonstrators called for greater transparency about the role that private developers are slated to have at some properties and the potential impact of Moving to Work (MTW), a program that allows public housing authorities to waive some federal regulations to determine the best use for HUD's funds based on local needs.

Freedom, fears

MTW dates back to the mid-1990s, a period when federal policy mandated deregulation in multiple sectors, resulting in everything from widespread changes in the broadcasting industry to welfare reform. Facing pressure to cut costs, HUD crafted MTW as a concession to appeals from local public housing agencies to be granted more authority. MTW was also designed in response to the growing demand among some observers that government agencies should do more to help individuals transition away from dependence on public assistance.

Generally, public housing agencies are supported by HUD through three distinct and highly-regulated sources—Section 8 housing vouchers, public housing funds, and capital for public housing operations. MTW gives housing authorities the flexibility to combine those funds to pay for anything from infrastructure projects to measures that promote more efficiency by the agency itself or self-reliance among residents.