Most of the players in the public-housing drama of the past few months are well known. There’s the mayor, and, of course, the governor as well as the City Council and NYCHA itself. The Citywide Council of Presidents or CCOP—the coordinating body for public-housing tenant leaders—is familiar to anyone who knows public housing. Jim Walden, the lawyer suing the housing authority on behalf of the CCOP, has also been around for a while, and was the subject of a New York Times profile back in April.
But At-Risk Community Services, the nonprofit that is advising the CCOP in its negotiations with the mayor and City Council, is a new name to most ears. In fact, it’s a new name, period: The organization incorporated only in November and registered its website a few weeks later.
Within a matter of months, the organization was playing a key role. At-Risk figured in the visits Andrew Cuomo made to NYCHA developments in March, where the governor attacked the mayor’s handling of public housing. It’s a party to Walden’s sweeping lawsuit, which would scrap NYCHA’s labor agreements, revamp the way the authority makes decisions for its 400,000 residents and impose an independent monitor. And it is heavily involved in talks with the mayor and Council about appointing an emergency manager for NYCHA—although it appears very little actual talking is happening.
Two members of the nine-member CCOP who spoke with City Limits said they knew little about At-Risk Community Services, which they say came on the scene early in 2018 when Danny Barber, the longtime tenant association head at Andrew Jackson Houses in the Bronx, became CCOP chairman. Aixa Torres, another prominent tenant association leader who hails from the Smith Houses in Manhattan, says she’d never dealt with them. A leading Brooklyn social-justice organization that has worked with NYCHA tenants for decades said it also has never heard of At-Risk.
But the two CCOP members stressed that, even if it is a newcomer, At-Risk has had a welcome impact.
“We just met them through Danny Barber,” says Lilithe Lozano, the CCOP member for Bronx North and a longtime tenant leader at Parkside Houses in the Bronx. “They’ve been a great resource to us because we’re finally getting some things done and having NYCHA respect us.” Raymond Ballard, the CCOP member from Brooklyn East, says he’s never worked with At-Risk. But, he is quick to say, “I see one thing they have done: They got the governor on board to help with the situation.” (Both Ballard and Lozano said they had long had separate legal counsel for their respective CCOP districts.)
A previous LIFE
In an interview with City Limits, Barber says At-Risk began working in his neighborhood six years ago. “At-Risk are a group of volunteer lawyers and accountants” who offered tenants help “dealing with NYCHA” and “helping residents to get healthcare.” (While Barber is listed on At-Risk’s website as part of “Our Team,” he is not an employee.)
Until recently, the organization Barber dealt with was not called At Risk Community Services but rather Labor and Industry for Education, Inc. At-Risk is a spinoff of LIFE, which is based in Cedarhurst, Long Island, and was founded in the mid-1980s.
According to administrative director Elie Hecht, who has been with LIFE since 2008, the organization operated at a relatively low altitude for many years, its main work being the administration of a HeadStart program in New York City. That began to change in the last decade. Revenue jumped from $700,000in 2011 to $9.3 million in 2014, mainly because LIFE took over two childcare programs, one in Williamsburg and the other in Coney Island. Federal and state funding increased, as did city money: From 2012 to 2013, city spending on LIFE rose from $480,000 to $5.7 million. It’s averaged $3 million a year ever since.
Besides pre-K and EarlyLearn, the organization now does foreclosure prevention and provides respite services and Medicaid service coordination for families with disabled children. It also operates one of the largest Medicaid pooled trusts in the state—a mechanism that allows low-income people with health needs to qualify for Medicaid even if they would otherwise narrowly miss the eligibility cutoff. LIFE’s earnings off fees for the pooled trust have increased from $109,000 in 2012 to $962,000 in 2016.
It was the expansion of LIFE’s early childhood services in 2012 or so that first put it in touch with NYCHA tenants, according to Hecht—because those programs were based in NYCHA buildings. Hecht and his colleagues began to see the problems NYCHA tenants faced, not to mention the steep odds NYCHA tenant leaders were up against.
“NYCHA had approximately 70 in-house attorneys,” Hecht recalls. “CCOP isn’t even funded. It has no staff. It has nobody representing their interests. We decided to create At-Risk specifically to deal with NYCHA issues. We tried to balance the playing field.”
At-Risk has applied to the Internal Revenue Service for nonprofit tax status. Asked whether the clients of At-Risk’s NYCHA work might also become a customer base for the pooled trust, Hecht says, “We’d like it to be one day, but we haven’t focused on it really at all.”
“The vision is that one day, the residents’ lives can be improved in many different ways: education programs, healthy food, services that they are entitled to that they’re just not educated about – those are wish-list things,” he says. “But right now, NYCHA is in crisis mode.”
LIFE is not funding At-Risk directly, Hecht says. Instead, the Jacob and Anita Penzer Foundation is underwriting the operation. The new organization’s staff are all LIFE employees, however, including Hecht and executive director Jackie Rogoff. Eventually, At-Risk will have its own board, Hecht says.
For its part, LIFE’s board has the feel of a family affair. Hecht’s wife Lisa was listed on its most recent annual filing as LIFE’s board president. The board secretary is Richard Penzer, husband of Rogoff and brother to staff member Michael Penzer. Rogoff and Richard Penzer loaned the organization $160,000 last year, and Penzer’s family foundation is funding At-Risk.
Richard Penzer is a developer who played a prominent role in reshaping downtown Pittsburgh from the 1990s on. His life has been touched by tragedy and danger: His sister died in the 1996 TWA Flight 800 disaster, after which he became a leading spokesperson for victims’ families. In 1992, according to accounts he has given, Penzer was threatened at his home by three “goons” seeking to collect a debt claimed by a former investor in one of his Pittsburgh buildings; that investor later figured in the corruption scandals that sent former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to prison.
Neither of those storylines had anything to do with LIFE, but the organization has had its own share of friction. In 2005, a state judge ordered LIFE to fork over $55,000 it allegedly owed a fundraising agency that had helped it get government grants. Ten years later, a former executive director of LIFE, Rabbi Simcha Lefkowitz, sued LIFE claiming that he’d been improperly fired by a board of trustees that had usurped the authority of the real board. LIFE strongly contested those claims, and a judge at one point slammed Lefkowitz (who did not return a call seeking comment) for his “many inconsistencies.” In 2016, the parties settled. LIFE agreed to pay Lefkowitz $350,000 and all sides signed a non-disparagement agreement. The agreement was supposed to be confidential but is available via the online state court database.
More recently, the organization got negative press around its founding of a Montessori school in Bushwick that charged up to $21,000-a-year tuition. The vision was always to provide financing to lower-income families so they could attend, too, according to Hecht. Those hopes haven’t materialized, however, and the school is closing this month after just one year of operation.
Aim to boost tenant power?
The lawsuit CCOP filed against NYCHA calls for, among other things, imposing an independent monitor over the agency. Asked if At-Risk might become that monitor, Hecht says, “I doubt it. Right now our job is to be counsel for CCOP. We are certainly not asking to be a monitor.”
At-Risk is also representing CCOP in the talks with the mayor and Council about appointing an emergency manager over NYCHA. The state law creating the emergency manager gave those three entities the joint authority to pick a manager. But with a deadline looming, meetings have been few. “For all intents and purposes there has been no substantive discussion at all,” Hecht says. While he expected the mayor’s intransigence—de Blasio obviously resented the governor’s grandstanding on NYCHA—Hecht says the Council’s silence is surprising. But the revelation that Gov. Cuomo’s order essentially gives the emergency manager a blank check for NYCHA repairs to be drawn on the city’s bank account appears to have given some city legislators cold feet. If the three parties don’t name someone by June 1, Comptroller Scott Stringer has 14 days to pick a manager.
Hecht doesn’t dismiss those concerns. His argument is that Barber is trying to make CCOP into the kind of vibrant body it should be. “It’s not a secret that CCOP was stagnant for quite some time under former leadership,” he says. “It’s also an open secret that NYCHA uses its Resident Engagement department to cut the legs out from any kind of organized tenant representation.” This is why At-Risk’s push to get NYCHA residents registered to vote is important, he says: It gives the city-within-a-city that lives in public housing the potential to exert its combined will at the ballot box.
Barber, who has discussed building NYCHA tenants into a political movement and contemplated seeking office himself, says he harbors no doubts about At-Risk. “They’ve stood by us. They’ve only been straightforward. The lift that we got with this case has been nothing but the will and the grace of God.”