Residents of the city’s public housing projects came to Wednesday’s City Council meeting to protest what they said was a politicization of the Housing Authority board, which is supposed to oversee their neighborhood. The meeting became so heated that toward the end, Councilman Michael Russo called another councilman a “racist” and said he “might as well go home and cut two holes in a pillowcase,” a nod to the garb worn by the Ku Klux Klan.
At issue were two votes. One was a vote on a contentious plan to revamp the projects and install new housing in place of the old. The other was a vote on the nomination of Barbara Reyes, a resident of the projects, to fill an empty seat on the Hoboken Housing Authority’s seven-member unpaid Board of Commissioners.
That board has an important role in town, as its members oversee the paid executive director and staff who are running the 1,383 units of public, low-income, federally subsidized housing in the southwest part of town. The Housing Authority neighborhood is a source of votes, a place where lucrative development contracts will be given out, and also the location of several recent high-profile drug busts. So whoever is appointed to the board will have much influence on local elections and on the quality of life for the city’s poorest residents.
At present, Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s allies have a majority on the housing board as well as on the City Council. But recently, one of her housing board members, Judy Burrell, voted for a non-Zimmer-friendly candidate to be chairman of the board, leaving some to speculate about her allegiance.
Adding Reyes to the board
On Wednesday night, HHA Executive Director Carmelo Garcia (who has been criticized by Zimmer’s allies) and a handful of HHA residents gave Reyes their support.
But her appointment was voted down when some council members raised concerns about her ability to provide oversight to Garcia’s administrative work. They also asked about the fact that she supports the controversial plan to revamp the projects – “Vision 20/20” – despite alleged statements that she’d never seen the plan. Council members were also unsure whether they could name a board member with the council itself being short a member.
Both of the contentious votes ended in 4-4 ties, continuing the trend in stagnancy on the part of the council, which has been operating with an empty seat since former Councilwoman Carol Marsh stepped down last fall and ongoing litigation from the anti-Zimmer minority has prevented Jim Doyle from taking the seat.
The two other important votes on the agenda Wednesday, related to the proposed $104 million 2013 municipal budget, also failed to pass, with 4-4 tallies.
“When we rush, mistakes can happen.” – Councilman-at-Large David Mello
“The council’s most important job is to pass this budget,” she continued. “We’re getting close to a point where we can’t run this city.”
At a previous meeting on May 1, three pro-Zimmer council members walked out when the Vision 20/20 project came up for discussion, and their opponents conducted a potentially unrecognized vote in support of the project.
Wednesday night, Council President Peter Cunningham allowed Garcia, Robert Powell, the HHA’s financial advisor, and Joseph Portelli, a representative of RPM Development, to re-submit their presentation and request that the council pass the resolution in support of the project’s first phase, a 44-unit building on the corner of Fourth and Harrison streets.
The presentation remained unchanged from two weeks ago, with Garcia again touting the project as Hurricane Sandy-proof and of little cost to taxpayers, as it would be funded entirely by tax credits and Community Development Block Grants from the U.S. Department Housing and Urban Development, and a loan from the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency.
Just like last time, Garcia and Powell continued to impress the urgency of the situation on the council, arguing that if the resolutions are not passed by a May 31 deadline, the HHA’s applications would stand at a serious disadvantage to other projects around the state.
Dialogue heats up
Following the presentation, pro-Zimmer council members continued to question the Vision 20/20 project as a whole. Cunningham spoke about concerns that the site where HHA plans to construct the building is not well-suited to the project and about the fact that the project as a whole has not been approved by the city’s Planning Board. Councilman-at-Large Ravi Bhalla said he doubted “whether this plan even exists on paper,” noting that he’d heard mention of a 26-page document circulating around town, but that he’d yet to see it.
“If you were going to buy a brownstone in Hoboken, and you had all the info, but you weren’t actually allowed in the house, is that the type of deal you would make?” Bhalla asked Garcia.
Mello, who is also a member of the HHA board and has said he supports the project, said it is moving too fast to tell whether its financial aspects are in Hoboken’s best interest.
“When we rush, mistakes can happen,” he said. “We need to make sure this is the best thing for our residents and our taxpayers. I want to get the most bang for our buck.”
As at the May 1 meeting, the council’s infighting had reached fever pitch when 3rd Ward Councilman Michael Russo had accused Zimmer’s supporters of being racists because they didn’t vote on the public housing plan.
Wednesday night, Russo took the criticism even further. He said that if Cunningham was not going to support affordable housing in Hoboken, he “might as well go home and cut two holes in a pillowcase.” Then he added, “…you’re an outright racist.”
Cunningham promptly denied the accusation, saying that he “couldn’t believe [Russo] just said that.”
Cunningham’s allies fired back at Russo, with Mello saying that if Russo is concerned about racism, he should give his affordable unit in the Church Towers complex to someone from the projects, as Church Towers is not as well integrated as the projects. Church Towers is a longtime affordable housing project at Sixth and Clinton streets, unrelated to the HHA projects, whose rents are artificially low because of a low interest rate the developers received when they constructed the building. The wait list is long and turnover is low.
Reasons to wait
Zimmer, for her part, has continuously expressed concerns over Garcia’s claims that the project would be “Sandy-proof,” arguing that the Garcia’s position is erroneous because the building does not have a backup generator that could power the building’s hallway and community room lights, and its fire suppression system, in the event of another superstorm.
“During Sandy, these buildings were left completely in the dark,” said Zimmer on Thursday. “Residents were using candles, and we’re so lucky we didn't have a fire and lose lives.”
She also condemned Russo’s accusation of racism against Cunningham, saying “it’s disheartening to be called a racist when I’m just trying to make sure the community is safe.”
DeanDeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fourth graders present study on Hoboken’s dog waste
In a display of wisdom, knowledge, and maturity that made some in the room question who were the children and who were the council members, students from Colleen Nguyen’s fourth grade class at All Saints Episcopal Day School gave a presentation to the council on what they consider a very serious problem – the high concentration of dog waste on Hoboken’s streets.
After conducting surveys of 129 fourth graders around the city, the All Saints students released data that 93 students thought dog waste was a problem, 84 students said that they’d stepped in it at least once, and that 105 knew that dog owners are legally bound to dispose of their pet’s waste.
“We found this interesting because if the vast majority know how dispose of dog waste, why is there so much dog waste on Hoboken streets?” asked Henry Engler.
At the conclusion of their presentation, the students presented a variety of ways in which the city could improve the waste situation.
They talked about what other cities have done to curb waste in their towns, including hiring a private company to handle cleanup, such as DoodyCalls, The Grand Poohbah, or Scoop Dee Doo.
They also impressed upon the council that violators of the city’s waste removal codes face sufficient fines, and that the codes should be enforced.