When waiting for repairs puts lives in jeopardy


BY Aline Reynolds

Part 1 in a 3 part special series on N.Y.C.H.A.

Lower Manhattan, the world’s financial capital where tremendous fortunes are made and lost, is also the site of several large 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 N.Y.C.H.A., short on funds and, some say, ineffective, cannot seem to keep up with the escalating work orders. N.Y.C.H.A. 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. 


Alfred E. Smith Houses — Nadya Martoral and her eleven kids

Nadya Martoral, who has lived for two decades in Smith Houses, near the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge on the Lower East Side, is unemployed and takes care of her eleven 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 and her children’s health and darken the family’s 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 the N.Y.C.H.A., 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 N.Y.C.H.A. operator scheduled a repair for September 23. Montrel 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, 16-year-old Jubilee Domenech, recently injured the nails on her big toes on the floor’s broken tiles of the entryway to the bathroom. She was forced to give up her spot on the basketball team at her high school 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 of Downtown Hospital, said asbestos could still be present in the floors of older 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 did not 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,” Nadya 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,” Naya said.

She has a complaint in 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.

Smith Houses Tenant Association President Aixa Torres established a grievance committee last spring to document tenants’ complaints and to assist those who don’t speak English. On November 9, she will conduct a training session to teach residents how to set up an appointment via N.Y.C.H.A.’s Centralized Call Center.

Torres is fed up with the repairs system, which she said is proving futile. 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.”

Rutgers Houses — the Codys

Dorothea Cody, her husband Roland, and their seven children have lived since 2003 in the Rutgers development, near the Pike Slip entrance to 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.” Ms. Cody said. “After we shower, she’s mopping up a quart of water.”

Mrs. Chen wasn’t available for comment, but Mrs. 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,” Mrs. Cody said.

N.Y.C.H.A. 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 N.Y.C.H.A.’s repair system was more efficient. “If they came in and saw what needed to be done, it was fixed right away. 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 N.Y.C.H.A. properties, visited the site last week.

“They said the mildew conditions were unsafe, and we put in an order,” she said. But the renovations will not come anytime soon. The Codys are scheduled for a repair visit in 2012 to remedy the problem.

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,” said Cody.

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

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

The Codys have another appointment with N.Y.C.H.A. scheduled for November 15, but they fear that it’ll be another temporary fix, if that.

By now, the Codys’ patience is tested. “I pay too much rent for my bathroom to be looking like this, for so many years,” Mr. Cody said.

Seward Park Extension — Mary Sing and her daughter, Mattie Luther, and the Colons

Mary Sing, 89, lives in an apartment filled with dust. But that is the least of her problems. Part of the wall of her living room is ripped wide open, exposing the building’s rotting interior.

“They were supposed to fix it,” said her daughter, 70-year-old Mattie Luther, 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 3-1-1, which directed them back to N.Y.C.H.A.’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.

Another Seward Park resident, Eliana Colon, doesn’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 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 endure the horrible odor that pervades the apartment.

“She can’t breathe with the smell sometimes,” Alfredo said about 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.”

Next week the series will take an in-depth look at N.Y.C.H.A. policies and tenant advocacy groups.