Nearly 9,000 Local 237 members work in New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) developments. Their work ranges from apartment repairs, to grounds caretakers, boiler and elevator services, to rent collections. About one-third of these workers also live in NYCHA apartments.
The problems in public housing have gotten much attention lately, as tenant and worker frustrations reach new highs due to sequestration cuts in federal dollars — basically, the only source of funding for the largest and oldest public housing in the nation. The $208 million cuts would mean a loss of jobs and services. Despite Mayor Bloomberg’s pledge to restore $58 million of federal dollars lost, NYCHA already has a $61 million operating deficit and $6- to $7 billion in much-needed capital repairs.
Bloomberg’s pledge is a case of too little, too late. With a three-year backlog of repairs, security cameras funded but not installed, reminders of Hurricane Sandy in affected developments, and with a proposal — a long kept secret — to build high-end housing on NYCHA property, we joined with residents to tell NYCHA Chairman Rhea: “Enough is Enough!”
We held a huge rally at City Hall recently to send a strong message to all the mayoral contenders that “NYCHA is broken. You need to fix it.” All the candidates were invited, but only one showed up: Bill Thompson. Bill not only vowed to end the long suffering of more than 600,000 NYCHA residents if he becomes mayor, he also called for the immediate dismissal of Mr. Rhea.
I did not hesitate when Bill Thompson invited me to join him and the other Democratic mayoral candidates for a “sleep-over” organized by the Rev. Al Sharpton at a NYCHA development, Lincoln Houses in East Harlem. The choice of Lincoln Houses was not random. Residents of the aging 25- building complex are suing NYCHA for 3,800 unfulfilled repair orders dating back to 2009. Bill knew I had made repeated attempts to address the backlog and other key problems, including giving extensive recommendations in a report to Chairman Rhea, all of which went unheeded.
After speeches and a grounds tour covered by dozens of reporters on the night of the sleepover, Bill and I met our host, Mrs. Barbara Gamble, a NYCHA resident for 44 years. Without air conditioning on this sweltering night, and with mold throughout the bathroom, we felt the human pain associated with the repair tickets that dated back so many years. We saw the struggles of Mrs. Gamble — a proud grandmother who takes matters into her own hands by routinely cleaning the hallways of her entire floor!
The next morning, we met with the other candidates to talk about what they saw during their NYCHA stay: ripped-out kitchen cabinets, chipped paint, water damage, faulty toilets, broken flooring and urine in the elevators. This was not the worst part of living in a NYCHA development. No, it was the news that a few days after our visit a 23-year-old woman was shot to death on the project’s grounds in a location where NYCHA failed to install security cameras, even though $1 million had been allocated by a City Council member.
Despite these conditions, 227,000 people are on a waiting list for a NYCHA apartment because affordable housing is scarce. With an average of about 5,400 or more openings annually, the wait for an apartment can take years.
NYCHA began more than 75 years ago as an experiment in municipal responsibility, and became a model of social pride. Many former residents, including a New York City mayor, a Supreme Court justice, and a world-renowned entertainment mogul, have all gone on to make a lasting, positive impact on society.
Yet, as I saw the hardships of Barbara Gamble and her neighbors first-hand, it became clear that what is wrong with public housing is not only broken buildings, but broken management. The next mayor, with the ability to appoint a new chairman and form a new board, will have the ability to fix NYCHA.