NYCHA's New Boss

NYCHA's New Boss

Yesterday, at an afternoon press conference, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced the new chairman of the New York City Housing Authority, John Rhea, a long-time banking executive who the mayor said would bring much-needed management and fiscal experience to the beleaguered agency.

But across City Hall, the city council was none too pleased with the decision. Within hours of Bloomberg’s announcement, a harshly worded release appeared in in-boxes across the city, with a half-dozen councilmembers decrying the decision. The chief complaint: Rhea has no prior housing experience.

“NYCHA is an agency that is charged with fulfilling one of the most critical responsibilities to New York City families,” councilmember John Liu said in the statement. “This appointment will only turn the agency into yet another business-oriented agency focused on the bottom line without regard for its impact on people and families.”

Councilmember Letitia James was equally forceful in her denouncement of Rhea. “I applaud the Bloomberg Administration for attempting to address the lack of diversity in their administration,” she said. “But, the appointment of an African-American man, who has no experience in managing a low-income public housing authority of this size and scale, and whose experience may be limited to private equity financing is troubling.”

Rhea graduated from Wesleyan University and holds an MBA from Harvard Business School. He has spent most of his professional career on Wall Street, most recently at Lehman Brothers. He replaces former Chairman Tino Hernandez, who returned to the private sector last year. The agency has subsequently been led by interim head Ricardo Elías Morales.

During yesterday’s press conference, the mayor said that Rhea’s insight and keen experience was precisely the sort of thing needed at NYCHA, which has been plagued for decades by bureaucratic and budgetary problems, along with a legacy of underinvestment in facilities, including notoriously malfunctioning elevators.

“The New York City Housing Authority, much like every other public housing authority across the nation, has faced extraordinary challenges in recent years, especially as federal and state support has waned,” Bloomberg said. “John’s experience makes him the perfect person to lead our efforts to create long-term financial stability at the authority, and to ring in a new era of transparency and agency responsiveness to improving resident and community quality of life.”

It was a sentiment affirmed by Dawn Walker, an administration spokesperson, who said that just because Rhea does not have public housing experience, he will not be a capable leader. “[Rhea] understands that and recognizes that and his commitment, like the mayor’s, is to preserving public housing,” Walker said. “As public housing has been devalued and sold off throughout the nation, New York continues to invest.”

The council had also complained about not being consulted on the decision, though Walker insisted that councilmembers were consulted in January. Asked to elaborate, however, she declined. “I can simply say they were consulted,” she said.

While it was not mentioned at the press conference, AN asked if Rhea might have a connection to Washington, where the Obama administration recently announced $423 million in stimulus money dedicated to fixing up the agency’s aging facilities. After a bit of research, Walker responded that yes, Rhea had been a member of the National Finance Committee. “Though that is not why he was selected,” she added. Still, this could only help in securing funds from an administration ramping up its public housing efforts.

As for several community groups contacted about Rhea’s appointment, none agreed to comment for this article. The reason most gave: They had never heard of him.