Lack of funding is root of problem


BY Aline Reynolds

for N.Y.C.H.A.

Part 2 in a 3-part series on N.Y.C.H.A. Read part one here.

New York’s public housing system, founded in the 1930s, is historically considered to be one of the most successful in the country. It owns and operates 344 housing developments, 30 of them in Lower Manhattan.

But in recent years, a severe lack of funding, paired with aging buildings, has hindered the authority’s ability to keep up with repairs.

“[Underfunding] each year adds to our structural deficit and hampers the Authority’s ability to meet the maintenance needs of our aging housing stock,” explained Michael Kelly, general manager of the New York City Housing Authority, at a recent public hearing.

In 2005, the housing authority anticipated a $7.5 billion need for apartment repairs, but only a fifth of that amount is available — not nearly enough for the thousands of work orders it receives each year. Since then, repair requests have continued to soar, reaching 250,000 last year, while N.Y.C.H.A.’s budget was further battered by the recession. It currently has a backlog of 107,000 work orders, some of which are scheduled for 2012 and 2013.

Tenant advocates such as Judith Goldiner, supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society, also believe the problem is compounded by a mismanagement of the funds it does have. The authority is spending excessively on job training, social services and sanitation, Goldiner said, while neglecting fundamental maintenance of the developments.

“They’re required to provide decent housing. All the rest of it is kind of window dressing,” said Goldiner. “There’s a lot of ways that they could save money in their budget and redirect it towards what really needs to happen here.”

Kelly announced at the hearing that N.Y.C.H.A. is trying to do just that. He said they are looking into re-appropriating $7 million in capital funds for repairs and reevaluating its capital program.

But it can be a vicious cycle: the less the authority invests on the aging infrastructure of its developments, the greater the need for individual repairs.

“The serious repair needs are coming from the backlog of unmet capital improvements,” explained Victor Bach, a housing policy analyst at the Community Service Society, a nonprofit advocacy and research organization for low-income New Yorkers. “With that kind of backlog, you have accelerated deterioration.”

Creation of the C.C.C.

In 2005 N.Y.C.H.A. created a centralized call center to streamline repair services across the city. The center operates from 6 a.m. to midnight on weekdays and has an electronic ticketing system that schedules repairs based on urgency.

Major emergencies such as gas leaks, elevator outages, or floods are typically attended to within 48 hours, but the tenant still has to schedule a follow-up appointment through the call center for patch-up work on the walls or for a floor job. Residents of several Lower East Side developments believe the system has proved inefficient.

“They just pass the buck from one worker to another, and nothing ever gets done,” said Rutgers Houses tenant Dorothea Cody, who has had a leak in her bathroom for years.

Tenants at Smith Houses and the other Lower East Side developments are filling out report cards that ask them to assess N.Y.C.H.A.’s operations. So far, the call center has received an “F” for timeliness and a “C” for overall reliability.

But contrary to tenants’ accounts, N.Y.C.H.A. claims that the former decentralized repairs system was far less effective than the call center.

“Housing assistants or receptionists at each development handled all requests for maintenance work,” and residents didn’t receive a scheduled date for repairs, Kelly said. “As a result, approximately 20 percent of all attempted apartment maintenance could not be completed because no resident was available when staff visited the apartment.”

But some believe arranging appointments for months or even years down the line isn’t an improvement to the system.

“The problem is that they’ve set up a centralized system to tell people they’re not going to get repairs, or they’ll get them in two or three years – that doesn’t make any sense,” said Goldiner.

Gloria Finkelman, the deputy general manager of N.Y.C.H.A., acknowledged at the hearing that some residents have to wait for as long as two years for repairs to be completed. The N.Y.C.H.A. maintenance worker assigned to the work orders, she explained, may not have the expertise to fix the leak or the problem at hand. The tenant is then supposed to schedule a follow-up appointment with an appropriate tradesman.

“We’re a union shop,” she explained. “Certain union members have certain job descriptions that don’t allow them to do other unions’ work.”

A shortage of union tradesmen is also making the situation worse. The total number of painters, carpenters and plasterers available to N.Y.C.H.A. dropped from 805 in 2005 to 765 this year, according to a N.Y.C.H.A. report obtained by the Downtown Express. The number of individual lawsuits against N.Y.C.H.A. over repairs has escalated in the last six months, according to the Legal Aid Society. And some tenants are withholding rent payments, or threatening to do so, until N.Y.C.H.A. fixes their apartments, which could jeopardize their housing status.

“It’s a dangerous situation because when you do that, you really risk getting evicted, and you also risk being blacklisted” by landlords outside of N.Y.C.H.A., Goldiner explained.

Federal funds are trickling in, but will they do the trick?

Last March, N.Y.C.H.A. got a welcome infusion of approximately $1 billion from President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that, starting this fall, is being distributed to the developments for basic repairs over the next 15 years. The authority also received a separate pool of $423 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Development for capital expenses, including elevator repairs, boiler replacements, and energy efficiency projects in developments across the five boroughs.

Now, each development will get its slice of the stimulus money since 21 developments, previously owned and operated by the city and state, including Rutgers Houses, were federalized earlier this year.

“All developments were hurting before, because there was less [money] for each development,” explained State Senator Daniel Squadron.

But the stimulus alone may not be the final fix, according to Squadron, who co-launched the campaign for federal support and has been working with the tenant associations of the various Downtown developments to expedite repairs.

“The easy solution is always money,” Squadron said. “But money is never enough. N.Y.C.H.A. has been plagued by three challenges: underfunding, poor management and a lack of political will.”

Kelly reported at the hearing that N.Y.C.H.A. is making a major effort to fix the repair system. The authority is working on a comprehensive five-year strategic plan to preserve public housing that will “serve as a vital roadmap for addressing our current maintenance and repair backlog,” he said. The plan will be released sometime next year, according to N.Y.C.H.A. communications officer Sheila Stainback.

Until then, many residents could remain frustrated and exposed to health hazards tied to their living conditions.

Part 3 in the series will focus on safety issues in N.Y.C.H.A. buildings