Riis leaks are driving NYCHA tenants up the wall


By Lorenzo Franceschi Bicchierai

At Antonia Watson’s apartment, in the Jacob Riis Houses, the bathroom wall, just above her toilet and bathtub, was removed to replace a failing pipe in June. The pipe was fixed back then, but the wall was not.

Instead of rebuilding the wall, the workers simply covered the hole with a plastic sheet and duct tape. The New York City Housing Authority scheduled the complete repair of her bathroom wall for Sept. 30, almost four months after the pipe repair.

Meanwhile, the plastic cover has started to fall off, exposing the pipes and the wall’s interior, which is filled with asbestos. Even with the bathroom fix, though, leaks continue.

“When it rains, it rains in my bedroom,” said Watson. “Water is seeping from the base of the walls, too.”

She and her neighbors keep complaining to NYCHA, but to no avail. Now they hope Councilmember Rosie Mendez can make good on her promise.

“Residents have waited too long for this,” said Mendez, after announcing her intention to solve once and for all the leakage issues that seem to affect most apartments of the Riis Houses, between E. Sixth and E. 13th Sts. east of Avenue D.

Mendez told residents at a tenants association meeting on Sept. 13 that she intended to meet with state Senator Daniel Squadron, Congressmember Nydia Velázquez and NYCHA Chairperson John Rhea to request money to repair the roofs and brickwork at the East Village development, which suffers serious water leak problems throughout its 21 buildings.

“It was supposed to be done already,” Mendez said. “They keep pushing it back because of the budget cuts that NYCHA has had to cope with since the Bush administration.”

The Riis Houses, built in 1949, are one of the city’s older Housing Authority developments. Rusty pipes, leaks through walls and floods are a common sight inside the apartments.

“The only thing that doesn’t leak here are elephants,” said Victor Manuel Matos, complaining that when it rains, water seeps through his walls.

“The building is falling apart,” said neighbor Gregory Cabrera.

NYCHA refused to release the number of complaints the tenants file every year — or an estimate of that number — making it impossible to assess exactly how many apartments are in the same predicament.

Leaks lead to other collateral issues that residents worry may be affecting their health. Nilda Gomez complains that toxic water permeates her ceiling and when the drops happen to hit her skin, “It burns and itches.”

Gilber Alicea, who lives in a first-floor unit, said that sometimes his toilet “shoots water up like a volcano.” He said other neighbors on the first floor have had the same problem.

Tenants must request repairs through NYCHA’s Centralized Call Center. The wait can be years. Cabrera has an appointment to remove the mildew from his walls in January 2013.

“They keep complaining to NYCHA but it’s falling on deaf ears,” said Nilsa Owens, Riis Tenants Association president. “NYCHA doesn’t really work for us.”

For this reason, Owens has been trying to involve public officials, like Mendez and Squadron, to pressure the authority. If the agency can renovate projects in the Bronx or Brooklyn, asked Owens, why can’t it do so in the Riis Houses?

In an e-mail statement, NYCHA said it is “currently in the process of awarding a contract to repair exterior brickwork and the roofs” of the Riis Houses.

Developments like Riis are “aging structures that require a great deal of maintenance, for which the Authority receives inadequate funding,” the NYCHA e-mail said. A NYCHA spokesperson said the agency could not provide an estimated timetable for the repair work.

For the sake of Riis Houses’ more than 4,000 residents, it better be sooner rather than later.