by The Editorial Board for The New York Times
June 30, 2019
Imagine paying rent for a home with rats, cockroaches, lead paint and mold. That’s what far too many of the estimated 600,000 residents of New York City public housing are doing, even after a lead paint scandal led to an investigation by federal prosecutors.
The city’s attempts to fix the authority’s biggest problems have not been effective or speedy enough, a recent report by the New York City Housing Authority’s federal monitor made clear. It’s the first comprehensive look inside the city’s public housing since the federal monitor, Bart M. Schwartz, was appointed earlier this year as part of a settlement of a two-year investigation by the United States Attorney’s office into persistent health hazards like lead paint and mold. The settlement also requires New York City to provide $2.2 billion to the authority over the next 10 years.
The report documented stunning examples of the insulting conditions that residents are forced to live in. In the Washington Houses, in East Harlem, garbage was piled so high in the trash chutes that rats were able to climb to the 14th floor, terrorizing residents.
Melissa Russo, of NBC 4 New York, found more horrors last week. She reported that a summer camp inside the Jackie Robinson Houses in East Harlem had been closed after dead rats made campers and counselors sick, with some carcasses falling onto them from the ceiling. After Ms. Russo’s report, the site was cleaned, and the camp was reopened.
In interviews, public housing residents said that what the monitor found was not a surprise, since the authority can’t provide even the most basic services.
Bernard Smith, who lives in the Morris Houses in the Bronx, said that he and his neighbors were locked in constant battle with cockroaches, mold and broken elevators, and that they waited months for basic repairs.
“It’s the same,” Mr. Smith said. “Nothing is really changing.”
Even before Mr. Schwartz’s appointment, a federal judge had selected a special master because of the authority’s failure to properly take care of mold, another major issue that the authority is still “struggling” to address, the report said.
In 2017 the city’s Department of Investigation revealed that public housing officials submitted false documentation to federal housing officials showing the authority had conducted the lead paint inspections, although it had not. For years the authority ignored signs that large numbers of children had been exposed to lead paint. Between 2010 and 2018, 2,070 children living in or spending substantial time in public housing tested positive for elevated levels of lead. Eighteen more children in public housing have been found to have elevated blood lead levels so far this year, the monitor found.
Not only is there a backlog of tens of thousands of apartments to inspect, but the authority hasn’t even identified all apartments with young children, where inspection should be a priority. Nearly two years after the Department of Investigation revealed to the public that hundreds of children had been poisoned, the monitor said, the authority “lacks a comprehensive strategic policy” to address lead-based paint.
The failures are frustrating. New York City, under Mayor Bill de Blasio, has increased its contribution to the housing authority substantially. In fiscal year 2014, the last budget negotiated under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the housing authority’s operating fund received $17 million from the city. In the current fiscal year, which began July 1, Mr. de Blasio has allocated $288 million to the authority.
Yet Mr. de Blasio allowed key roles at the agency to go unfilled, or to be filled by interim officials, for months. These included the position of chair until last month, when Mr. de Blasio selected Gregory Russ, who led the Minneapolis public housing authority, for the job. Until this month, it also included the head of the housing authority’s lead hazard unit.
Mr. de Blasio also appears to have stinted the public housing work force in general, even as he has increased the number of employees elsewhere in city government by the tens of thousands. There are now 11,484 employees at the housing authority, down from 15,216 in 2003. Of the present total, just 990 are maintenance workers, according to city officials.
Decades ago, each development had its own plumbers, repairmen, exterminators and other maintenance workers. But after years of federal disinvestment and mismanagement, the work was centralized, forcing residents to wait months at a time for repairs to basic services like heat and hot water.
The city and state will need to invest significantly more in the authority’s operations budget to hire more maintenance workers.
An audit from City Comptroller Scott Stringer released on Friday found that the authority lost track of warranties, forcing it to pay for repairs it didn’t have to, and that it failed to properly maintain 19 roofs, possibly voiding manufacturer warranties and costing the agency $24.6 million.
The housing authority is in dire need of rapid reforms to increase accountability, at every level.
Mr. de Blasio will need to work quickly to negotiate savvier labor agreements with the housing authority’s skilled unions, not only to find savings but also to change work rules that can make it unduly difficult to fire employees or hold them accountable.
So far, Mr. de Blasio hasn’t shown the urgency these New Yorkers deserve.
“Things are being done on a vast scale,” he said in a recent interview with NY1. “We’ll certainly — everyone at Nycha will look at the report, we’ll look at the report. We have new leadership coming in, in just a few weeks, that’s going to help us to now aggressively implement the plans we put in place and, you know, to spend properly the billions of dollars that we’ve committed to make changes.”
New York’s public housing has provided generations of families an affordable place to live in one of America’s greatest cities. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor lived in a public housing complex in the Bronx. Lloyd Blankfein, the former chairman of Goldman Sachs, lived in public housing in Brooklyn. The rapper and music mogul Jay-Z did, too.
Like all New Yorkers, the more than half a million people who live in public housing deserve safe and clean homes, and basic respect.