NYCHA’s repair system is broken, tenants charge


By Aline Reynolds

Lower Manhattan, the world’s financial capital where tremendous fortunes are made and lost, is also the site of 30 public housing developments where low-income tenants live in shoddy and unhealthy conditions. These residents look to the New York City Housing Authority for much-needed repairs to their decaying apartments.

But NYCHA, short on funds and, some say, ineffective, cannot seem to keep up with the escalating work orders. NYCHA promises it is devising a master plan to improve the repairs system, but whether the new approach will make a difference is yet to be seen. 

Nadya Martoral, who has lived for two decades in the Alfred E. Smith Houses, near the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge on the Lower East Side, is unemployed and takes care of her 11 children on her own.

As if that were not hard enough, she has a host of unfixed appliances in her apartment, some of which jeopardize her family’s health and darken their mood. Floor tiles are cracked, windows are broken, and the plaster from her kitchen and bathroom ceilings is falling off.

Martoral has made several repair requests to NYCHA, to no avail.

“I call and say, ‘Listen, I need this… ’ They give [ticket numbers] to me, and they never come over here.”

Most recently, a NYCHA operator scheduled a repair for Sept. 23. Martoral said she waited all day, but no one came.

“I feel like that’s abuse, because I can’t live like that. I understand I owe money,” she said in broken English. “But they have to do the job in housing, too.”

Her daughter Jubilee Domenech, 16, recently injured the nails on her big toes on broken floor tiles on the entryway to the bathroom. She was forced to give up her spot on her high-school basketball team this fall because, she said, it’s too painful to play.

“I can’t play no more until my toenails come off,” she said.

Jubilee visited the doctor the day of the accident, but she was too scared to go back and get her nails removed. Her goal of earning a basketball scholarship at a state university is now on the line.

“My toes are bothering me,” she said, “and they’re making me think twice about what I want to do.”

The apartment’s cracked floor may pose other health problems, as well. Dr. Warren Licht, chief medical officer at Downtown Hospital, said asbestos could still be present in the floors of older NYCHA buildings, such as Smith Houses, which was built in 1953.

“It’s usually found in floors and hallways,” Licht said. “The more you are exposed to it, the more likely you are to get lung cancer 20 years from now.”

Only days after Jubilee hurt herself on the tiles, a broken window in one of the bedrooms fell forward onto her arm.

“I got up to look at my sister’s closet, and the whole window came off on my arm,” she explained.

A handyman showed up a few days later to repair the window, but didn’t finish the job.

“He was here for 10 minutes, tops,” she said. “He just left this piece here with a bunch of screws.”

The window is still broken.

“Don’t touch it,” her mother warned Jubilee, fearful that it could hurt her daughter’s arm again.

The pipes above the toilet leak intermittently, causing water and plaster to rain down.

“When we flush the toilet, it goes crazy,” Martoral said.

She has filed a complaint for that, too, but doesn’t have a scheduled appointment. Jubilee, in the meantime, wears a sweater in the house to protect her arms against the falling plaster.

Aixa Torres, president of the Smith Houses Tenant Association, established a grievance committee last spring to document tenants’ complaints and to assist those who don’t speak English. Earlier this month, she conducted a training session to teach residents how to set up an appointment through NYCHA’s Centralized Call Center.

Torres is fed up with the repairs system, which she said is proving futile. Based on the repairs schedule, her ceiling fan isn’t supposed to be fixed for two years.

“I’m just, like, done with them,” she said. “If we have to do litigation, we’re going to go that route.”

Dorothea Cody, her husband, Roland, and their seven children have lived since 2003 in the Rutgers Houses development on the Lower East Side, just north of the Manhattan Bridge. Their crumbling bathroom causes constant leaks in the apartment next door, occupied by the elderly Mrs. Chen.

“She gets flooded every time we take a shower.” Cody said. “After we shower, she’s mopping up a quart of water.”

Chen wasn’t available for comment, but Cody described her neighbor’s conditions: “The wall is so damp, it feels like cardboard. All of the tile on her floor is up — it’s not puckering, it’s up. And her hallway wall is tilting forward. She just had new tiles laid again. It looks horrible.”

The Codys have their own maintenance problems to deal with. Moldy plaster from the ceiling and walls falls on them when they flush the toilet in their main bathroom.

“There’s a busted pipe in the wall — they constantly fix the bricks over and over, and get the same result in less than six months,” she said.

NYCHA has visited three or four times since the spring.

“They come in and have a look and they say, ‘Oh, that’s the plasterer’s job,’ ” she said. “And it’s never done.”

“The unions have rules the workers have to abide by, so they can’t always call in a plumber and then a plasterer in the right order,” explained Victor Bach, a policy analyst with the Community Service Society, a nonprofit advocacy and research organization for low-income New Yorkers.

According to the Codys, there was a time when NYCHA’s repair system was more efficient.

“If they came in and saw what needed to be done, it was fixed right away,” said Dorothea Cody. “Now, when you call, they contradict one another. No one is consistent.”

Finally, an inspector from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has a role in regular oversight of all NYCHA properties, visited the site a few weeks ago.

“They said the mildew conditions were unsafe, and we put in an order,” Cody said. But the renovations will not come anytime soon.

In the meantime, they face health risks. According to Dr. Licht, “Mold has spores, and spores act as allergens,” often leading to asthma and other respiratory conditions.

As a short-term fix, Cody sprays her walls with Lysol, putting a towel over her nose to avoid inhaling the mold.

“I run out of the bathroom and close the door, so when I go back inside all those black mold spots are off the wall and the ceiling,” she said.

Long-term inhalation of mold can lead to an inflammation of the lungs, according to the National Institute of Health. Indeed, Cody reported that her allergies have gotten progressively worse over the years.

“I’ve taken more allergy medicine this year than any year ever,” she said, noting that it’s the first year she has taken prescription drugs for her symptoms.

The Codys had another appointment with NYCHA for plastering scheduled for Nov. 15, but they feared it would just be another temporary fix, if that. Getting the affected area painted will be a much longer wait, with a date scheduled for sometime in 2013.

By now, Cody and her family’s patience has been pushed to the limit.

“I pay too much rent for my bathroom to be looking like this, for so many years,” Cody said.

In NYCHA’s Seward Park Extension, just south of the Williamsburg Bridge approach ramp, Mary Sing, 89, lives in an apartment that is filled with dust. But that’s the least of her problems. Part of her living-room wall is ripped wide open, exposing the building’s rotting interior.

“They were supposed to fix it,” said her daughter, Mattie Luther, 70, whose full-time occupation is taking care of her mother. “The minute they fixed it, it started cracking — and they left it like that.”

The mother and daughter got so frustrated they called 311, which directed them back to NYCHA’s call center.

Sing has nightmares of the ceiling caving in on her. She constantly spits into a bucket to get rid of phlegm that collects in her mouth and throat.

“She’s been doing that for four years, since I’ve been here,” Luther said.

A few months ago, Luther herself was diagnosed with a throat infection.

“There was nothing wrong with my throat until I came here,” she said, suspecting it is related to the conditions.

Eliana Colon, another Seward Park Extension resident, won’t step foot into her kitchen, sickened by a putrid smell coming from a gaping hole above the cabinets. The stench comes from mold caused by a leak that has persisted for months.

Eliana’s son Alfredo, who often stays overnight to care for her, said, “We called [the emergency hotline]. The first time they came, they make a little hole to investigate the leak.” That was last February.

Another handyman visited in June, making an even bigger hole in an attempt to stop the dripping.

“The guy took a look and said, ‘Oh my God’ — then he went upstairs and never came back,” Alfredo said.

Fungus is now growing in the cabinets, and the wall below it is soaked in water, making cooking in the kitchen no longer an option.

“I have to buy takeout food for her,” Alfredo said.

The Colons’ next repair appointment is scheduled for June 2011. In the meantime, Eliana is considering withholding rent as she and her son continue to endure the horrible odor that pervades the apartment.

“She can’t breathe with the smell sometimes,” Alfredo said of his mother, who has been hospitalized for asthma.

“Anything that stays damp creates an environment for mold to grow,” Dr. Licht said. “People who are affected most are the very young and the very old, and people who already have a diagnosis of asthma.”

According to NYCHA, a lack of funding is a major problem, affecting the agency’s ability to keep up with repairs on its 344 developments throughout the city.

Annual underfunding “adds to our structural deficit and hampers the authority’s ability to meet the maintenance needs of our aging housing stock,” explained Michael Kelly, NYCHA’s general manager, at a recent public hearing.

In 2005, the Housing Authority anticipated a $7.5 billion need for apartment repairs. Today, however, only one-fifth of those funds is available — not nearly enough for the thousands of work orders the agency receives each year. Since 2005, repair requests have continued to soar, reaching 250,000 last year, while NYCHA’s budget was further battered by the recession. The authority 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 NYCHA’s 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 toward what really needs to happen here.”

Kelly announced at the hearing that NYCHA is trying to do just that: He said the agency is looking into re-appropriating $7 million in capital funds for repairs and re-evaluating its capital program.

But it can be a vicious cycle: The less the authority invests on its developments’ aging infrastructure, 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. “With that kind of backlog, you have accelerated deterioration.”

In 2005 NYCHA 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 is 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 NYCHA’s operations. So far, the call center has received an “F” for timeliness and a “C” for overall reliability.

A shortage of union tradesmen is also making the situation worse. The total number of painters, carpenters and plasterers available to NYCHA dropped from 805 in 2005 to 765 this year, according to a NYCHA report obtained by this newspaper.

Meanwhile, the number of individual lawsuits against NYCHA over repairs has escalated in the last six months, according to the Legal Aid Society. And some tenants are withholding rent, or threatening to do so, until NYCHA 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 NYCHA, Goldiner explained.

Last March, NYCHA got a welcome infusion of roughly $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 allocation 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. NYCHA has been plagued by three challenges: underfunding, poor management and a lack of political will.”

Kelly reported at the hearing that NYCHA 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 road map for addressing our current maintenance and repair backlog,” he said. The plan will be released sometime next year, according to Sheila Stainback, a NYCHA spokesperson.

Until then, many residents could remain frustrated and exposed daily to health hazards in their apartments.