Public housing residents concerned about living conditions as winter approaches


Edith Santiago mops water out of closet

Edith Santiago mops out water that has pooled in her closet due to an unfixed leak in her public housing apartment. Photo: Ana Mendez.

Edith Santiago’s tub is overflowing with damp clothes. Her closet is moldy and wet, her kitchen floor looks like a slip-and-slide, and trails of black, slimy streaks form as she pushes her walker across the living room of her Elliot Houses apartment. Though the New York City Housing Authority fixed the leak in her apartment two weeks after she reported it, the 81-year-old Puerto Rican woman was still dealing with the damage days later on her own.

“This is an injustice,” said a visibly frustrated Santiago. “It took me telling my senior citizens association for the leak to be fixed. They told the Housing Authority to be there that very same day when [the senior citizens association] called, and that was two weeks after I reported the incident.” Some of her clothes and other belongings have been ruined. She continues to struggle to dry everything up.

City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office put out a report on September 8 of this year that shows “rapidly deteriorating housing at NYCHA,” the Housing Authority. The report highlighted the issues and dangers of water leaks, reported by nearly one-third of public housing tenants in 2011. Leaks can lead to health problems including eczema, asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory infections. It said that mold has become a chronic problem for Housing Authority residents with leak issues.

Residents worry that the winter months will aggravate these problems, as dropping temperatures will make it more difficult to air out apartments.

The report also stated that heating equipment breakdowns increased by 72.8 percent between 2008 and 2011, and units with broken plaster and peeling paint increased by 111 percent.

Florence Dent-Hunter, president of the Chelsea-Elliot Houses Resident Association said she can attest to those infrastructure issues. “I still need my apartment painted,” she said, and added that she is also having problems with peeling plaster. Fellow residents tell her about leaks in their homes.  “You do hear about the flooding issues,” she said.

The Authority says it has already dealt with many of the issues brought up in the report and that conditions have improved since 2011, the latest year used in Stringer’s report.  “It looks at information from 2002 to 2011, with the most recent material several years old,” said Joan Lebow, chief communications officer at the Housing Authority.

The Housing Authority also said that repairs are occurring faster than in previous years.

According to the Housing Authority’s website, there were 83,400 open work orders during August 2014, and about 56,000 of those were newly filed that month. It took an average of 31 days for repairs to be completed during August of this year, a figure that is in stark contrast to the average 175 days it took the Authority to complete repairs a year prior. The data also show that emergency work orders are completed within 24 hours about 95 percent of the time. The authority defines emergency work orders as those that pose “potential danger to life or limb caused by a maintenance problem,” and includes floods in this category.

The Housing Authority says that it is working to improve the previous administration’s backlog and issues. In 2014, it created an independent board to review conditions in its 178,000 units. So far, that board has examined more than 25,000 apartments, according to the department’s media office. In a statement, the NYCHA said,  “Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decision to retain more than $100 million previously projected for NYPD payments over the next two years have enabled NYCHA [the Housing Authority] to focus on repairs and maintenance. [The Housing Authority] is using these resources to continue reducing the backlog of open work orders.”

But Dent-Hunter said that the Housing Authority fails its residents in ways other than infrastructure problems in the buildings. “Parts of the neighborhood don’t have proper lighting. It’s going to be more of a problem now that it gets dark earlier outside. A lot of homeless people are in the area and there is more of a possibility of mugging now,” she said, though she conceded that the issue the lamps’ timers;  the lights are often on during the day and off at night.

Angel Cortes, a resident of the Robert Fulton Houses housing project, in Chelsea, said that the Housing Authority has also failed to address security issues in public housing. According to Cortes, entrance locks are broken in several developments, which puts residents at risk. Although it’s not a frequent issue, he said, it is of concern.

Darlene Waters, an older resident of Chelsea-Elliot Houses, said she hasn’t had bad experiences with the Housing Authority. In fact, she said, the authority has always been prompt when she has reported issues, and she attributes people’s problems with the agency to their inability to follow-up on their complaints. “But,” she said, “the only really bad thing is that the buildings aren’t clean. The floors are really old; the elevators are disgusting. The people who clean just use the same old, dirty mop all the way through the building, so they do clean, but it’s never clean.”

In a September 19, 2014 memo addressed to de Blasio and Battery Park City Authority chairman Dennis Mehiel, Stringer requested that revenues over $200 million from the Battery Park City Authority be used to deal with the issues plaguing Housing Authority residents, suggesting that the Authority be “directed specifically to the preservation of our city’s greatest and most underfunded source of affordable housing for low-income New Yorkers: the New York City Housing Authority.”

Meanwhile, Santiago awaits for her belongings to dry, for her living situation to go back to normal, and for her hand to heal after she hurt it dumping out water from her closet.  “It makes no sense to me that they told me they couldn’t help me until October 21 when I’ve clearly been struggling,” Santiago said. “I’m lucky my association stepped in to help. If not I’d still be living with flooding.”