Alicka Ampry-Samuel, HUD’s Top New York-Area Official, On Affordable Housing

She’s in charge of the country’s largest stock of public housing and of several tools that can subsidize the construction of new residential units

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Alicka Ampry-Samuel didn’t intend to become the federal housing and development agency’s top official for the New York area. 

The former New York City Council member from the 41st District in Brooklyn had originally intended to help Sen. Chuck Schumer fill the regional administrator position at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but her resume was too good to pass up. Now she’s in charge of the country’s largest stock of public housing and several tools that can subsidize the construction of new residential units at a time when the region suffers from an acute affordable housing crisis.

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Ampry-Samuel spoke to Commercial Observer about her background in local Democratic politics, her relationship with Mayor Eric Adams, and the challenges the Biden administration faces this year.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Commercial Observer: What got you interested in politics?

Alicka Ampry-Samuel: I was born and raised in Brownsville, and my family lived in New York City Housing Authority housing for decades. I got bused out to Mill Basin and attended P.S. 236 and then Roy H. Mann for junior high school.

My great-grandmother lived in Brevoort Houses in the 1950s when the development first opened. I was born and raised in Marcus Garvey Village in Brownsville. My mom and dad were both county committee members. I used to be in Democratic clubhouses when I was a child. My mom and dad used to be the ones who stuffed envelopes with then-Assemblyman Thomas Boyland. 

I was always on the student council even when I was in high school. I was class president in college, and delivered the commencement speech at North Carolina A&T. 

When I came back home, I was working at the time. Assemblyman [William] Frank Boyland was the chair of the state Assembly’s mental health committee, so I was familiar with the mental health space. I ended up landing my first job at Goddard Riverside in 1998, where I was doing street outreach in the mobile unit with homeless individuals. The next year was the first time I went up to Albany as an adult and I sat on a panel in mental health at the legislative caucus. That was my first time speaking in public about housing mentally ill homeless people. That set me on the path for everything I’ve done since then.

I ran for district leader in 2001. It was a vacant seat in the 55th Assembly district in the Boyland camp. I was the youngest district leader in the state of New York. Clearly being a district leader back then under Clarence Norman, the Brooklyn Democratic Party chairman, I saw a different type of politics.

Why did you work for the U.S. Embassy in Ghana, and what did you learn there?

In 2009 and 2010, I was working in Brownsville for an initiative called Common Ground, now called Breaking Ground. They were building a senior building there and it was my job to help residents get jobs on that development site. At the same time, Common Ground was building a building for people with homelessness and mental illness. I had to go to the community board to speak about supportive housing. It was interesting to see an organization develop housing for our most vulnerable and the fact that our community was so against it. I started to look at what was happening around the world and compare it with how people were protesting here. 

At the time, Air Jordans were coming out, and families were lined up around the corner on Pitkin Avenue. I was looking at families who could sacrifice to purchase sneakers for their child and yet send them to school hungry. I got fed up, and I wanted to work in an environment where people appreciated support and assistance and help. It was a different level of priority. 

My husband was taking a job in Ghana, and I applied for a position with the State Department. They had an opening for a human rights coordinator, and I realized this is what I’m supposed to be doing. I realized when I got there, poor is poor, and it’s just your experiences, and your lens and how you see the world.

Those children who went to school in Ghana were hungry, but those children who went to school in New York City were also hungry. If they were in the United States, it did not negate the fact that they were still hungry. I went there to see something different, but it was still related to working on human rights and civil rights.

How did you apply what you learned to New York?

I used to lead with that at press conferences: Working in a developing country, America spends so much money on development and policy overseas and, here, right in our backyard, we don’t have the same level of focus and funding as we do in other countries.

When I was in Ghana, I was going to remote villages and talking with women about sending their children to school and making sure they had enough electricity and water. And, when I was at NYCHA in 2018, at Brevoort Houses with then-Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, they had no water for two weeks and they had to use buckets and spigots to get water from outside from johnny pumps. This was just like a developing country.

What misconceptions do people have about the Brooklyn neighborhoods you represented? 

When you look at voter records, double-, triple-prime voters, it was in residents who lived in Nehemiah Homes [single-family homeowners’ associations in Brownsville and East New York]. Those high-volume numbers didn’t come from public housing. I wanted to turn out the vote in NYCHA and I was told by party leaders, “Those n——s don’t vote over there.” And it hurt me to my core. They were talking about me. They no longer saw me as the way they described people because I was a law school graduate, I went away to college. That was the perception, though.

And it continues to be. It’s so disheartening. When you look at elected officials, when you look at development and who developers go out to talk to for support for a project, if they want to go into a public housing area, they speak to all the stakeholders around the development before they have a strategic campaign in the building.

There is this narrative that folks who live in public housing are not active, don’t want to be active, and are dependent on the government for subsidies — and that could be the furthest from the truth. When you look at statistics, developments are made up of folks who work every single day. They may not have the
highest-paid salaries but that’s by design. The reason why they aren’t as active in civics, they didn’t have a reason to be active. 

When Obama came to office, 98 percent of the 55th Assembly District came out to vote. It was because they saw some kind of hope. The misperception of people in that community and communities like it — they go to work, they put their head down, and just try to make an honest living. You see poor living conditions in not just public housing but multifamily buildings in impoverished communities. They lack so much, but they don’t go on a rent strike. They’re not organizing for better services. Society sees that as “Oh well, if they don’t care neither do I.” But people are so tired. 

Why did you accept the HUD position?

Everything that I have done is focused on being a voice for the most vulnerable in society, where I have the capacity to be directly involved, where I’m bringing people to a service or in a position to bring services. 

When I was not successful in my re-
election to the City Council, I had a conversation with Senator Schumer about the HUD position. We were talking about who should be the regional administrator and I was submitting names. And then it was a lightbulb. “Wait a minute, this is the perfect job for you. You’ve worked in every level of government and in the housing space.” Schumer said, “I think you’re the best person for the job.” 

You pulled a Dick Cheney!

I never think it’s me. I’m always at a roundtable discussion. I honestly did not see this as a position for me. But it makes sense.

What is your relationship with President Biden and HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge like?

My role has been with meeting with Secretary Fudge and understanding what her vision is under this administration. I haven’t met President Biden personally in a private setting. My guidance and my drive and vision really come from a space of what does the community need, what is the vision of my secretary, and how can we make sure to serve as a liaison between elected officials in New York and New Jersey and the administration.

What about Mayor Eric Adams? 

I have known Mayor Adams for a very long time. We’ve done a lot together, honestly. We’ve worked hand in hand over the years on what we can do, on our capacity of development, and providing funding for capital resources to make a difference. We’ve partnered on NYCHA and NYPD issues. 

When I first got to the Council in March 2019, I allocated $250,000 to the 73rd Precinct to build out a space to address community relationships. Adams ended up contributing another $1 million to three more precincts. We ended up having $1.25 million for four precincts in my district. It was the same idea to build out a community space to allow for a regular individual resident to go to a precinct, not just related to an arrest or police report. They can go to see about postings for jobs or news in the community, like any other civic organization in the community. That got a lot of pushback from advocates who said the money should have gone to schools or housing, but we know the money was needed for that purpose.

Were you surprised that Adams won?

I was not at all. It’s not a secret I was one of his early supporters. Clearly, I thought that he was going to win. With everything that we had gone through over the past year and a half with COVID, people were just looking for someone who was familiar, who just got it, who just understood the struggle of the everyday New Yorker, somebody who could address what was happening with the NYPD, someone who had legislative experience, and someone who is a champion of the everyday person. We were looking for that.

What can HUD do to alleviate the housing crisis?

God is not dropping more land on us. Under the Biden administration we understand the crisis. The president and vice president from day one said that is going to be a priority for the administration. Since they have taken office, everything they have done has been trying to figure out a relief for the increase in rent and the cost of living. Then it has been what we can do to provide cities and small towns with more incentives

When you look at the housing action plan, there are zoning suggestions, ways of providing more resources and tools to aid agencies, and looking at loans. When you look at Brownsville and East New York, you see dilapidated structures. It’s difficult for the average person to get funding for demolition, predevelopment, funding to build, and a mortgage over the next 30 years. We’re looking at ways of combining all the funding and getting predevelopment dollars to roll into that mortgage. We’re looking at properties HUD owns, foreclosed homes, and making sure they don’t go to a developer who can just flip it, but look at ways to allow nonprofit developers to come in. We want to incentivize homeowners to purchase foreclosed homes, renovate them, and be able to live there.

We are looking at what we can do with tools that we have to get more affordable units out there. President Biden has been focused on it, and my secretary has been focused on the Our Way Home initiative launched in June. It’s HUD’s way to work directly with government, community stakeholders, developers, the public housing authorities, and the average individual. It’s what can we do together, who has a project in the pipeline that looks doable in 2022 and 2023, where is the holdup, and what can we do with our tools and resources to move that project along?

That’s where we are now. We’re looking at home dollars, funding under the American Rescue Plan, and working to directly utilize those funds; looking at where the administrative burdens exist and providing a simple waiver to get something off the ground.

With the expiration of 421a, can the federal government help with other incentives to spur affordable housing construction?

We were just thinking about 421a. You see a lot of 80-20 deals [where developers receive tax subsidies for making 20 percent of their units income-restricted]. Even though developers provided this incentive to build, the amount of units built for affordable housing was a small percentage, but you had this other level of market-rate units. Were we ever really addressing the affordable housing crisis with those deals? I don’t think we were. 

We can provide more funding, low-income housing tax credit deals, and work with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation to get more affordable units into the pipeline. I can’t say that 421a didn’t help. It did provide us with some 50,000 units that came online. You can’t say it didn’t help, but I think developers are going to develop anyway. If we put more laws in place like in London, where for every development happening you have to do a certain percentage of affordable housing without tax credit, we should not be in position to give someone 35 years to not pay taxes. To me, that’s crazy. I don’t think that’s helpful at all.

What role can public housing play in alleviating the housing crisis?

When Mayor Bloomberg was in office, he was talking about infill: Looking at vacant land on NYCHA property and how we can get more units of affordable housing by activating spaces. 

In Brownsville we had two that came up in the Van Dyke Houses. Both buildings were 100 percent affordable and came into new construction for city shelters. When you look at infill, [Rental Assistance Demonstration, or RAD] conversion, there’s so much we can use to address the housing crisis and at the same time preserve units we already have. If we don’t preserve them, they’ll be demolished.

Under this admin, we’re seeing more emphasis going toward RAD deals. Although there’s a lot of controversy, there’s still a need to preserve our housing stock. It’s not just about the conversions from Section 9 to Section 8, it’s about looking at ways to get new construction for these areas as well. When you look at Fulton and Chelsea-Elliott Houses [NYCHA properties that include infill development and RAD deals], there are ways to add new units if we do it the right way.

Under the Biden fiscal year 2023 budget, there’s funding for the first time directly for RAD. HUD was supportive of the trust bill that was in the state this year. That’s because that can leverage more dollars for NYCHA. A lot of people complain that conversions are going to private developers, and public-private partnerships are to receive funding, but now, with the preservation trust, that funding can be leveraged by the public trust itself and not by private developers. If we could use that as a model in other places with similar challenges, it’ll be a win for all.

Is NYCHA moving in the right direction now? What still needs to be done, in your opinion?

Prior to the federal monitor, the conversation was around receivership. When you look at the size of NYCHA, there are 11,000 employees and 174,000 units. The size of NYCHA is double the size of HUD as an agency when you just look at the employees. 

When Bart Schwartz came on as federal monitor [in early 2019], there were concerns about mold, lead, elevators and pest control management. You won’t see change overnight. Since that time, HUD has been in the room observing and keeping a close watch on the action plans within the authority along with the U.S. attorney’s office of the Southern District.

Everything they do comes at a cost. When we talk about boilers, how much does it cost to put in a new boiler system, to convert a building to a new heating system — it comes at a cost, you have to start thinking about ways to preserve units and look at the funding available, as well as weatherization. You have to be talking about everything.

The bigger challenge, those buildings are old and they were not given the funding that they needed in order to be maintained properly compared with Stuyvesant Town, which was built at the same time. I can’t say pest control is worse than boilers. I’m sure there’s going to be a building that loses heat this winter, but what is the response time? What they’re putting into place now is related to response time and making sure they were doing preventative measures in the summer.

They’re working on making changes under the settlement agreement at the same time. There’s no other authority in this entire country that has been neglected to this level and has to respond to this issue and crisis every single day. No other place. NYCHA alone is the size of Boston.