Amid Leaky Roofs and Lead Paint, NYCHA Tenants Are Outraged and Hopeful
Posted June 12, 2018 4:41 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — The walls in Manuel Arena’s one-bedroom apartment in the Williamsburg Houses in Brooklyn continue to crumble.
It has been two years since Arena, 73, submitted a repair order to his landlord, the New York City Housing Authority, for the offending leak. He regularly finds the rotten plaster on his shower base or on the wooden bench in his foyer. He keeps air freshener handy to cover the damp odor. And he says the conditions have worsened his asthma and bronchitis.
“It’s suffocating sometimes,” said Arena, who has lived almost half his life in the project on Bushwick Avenue.
Standing by the doorway to his bathroom, Arena barely flinched when a mouse scurried past his feet Monday afternoon.
“Oh, that one is new,” Arena, originally from Puerto Rico, said in Spanish. “I’ve caught four already in the last few weeks.”
Given his own frustrations with NYCHA, as the housing authority is known, he was not surprised by the news Monday that federal investigators had documented systemic neglect and malfeasance in managing the city’s 325 public housing developments.
Indeed, for many of NYCHA’s more than 400,000 tenants, the complaint by the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan was a long overdue acknowledgment of the conditions they have endured for years, driven by pervasive local mismanagement and diminishing federal resources.
The 20 buildings that make up the Williamsburg Houses sit a little more than 3 miles from the U.S. attorney’s office in lower Manhattan and the damning portrait painted by prosecutors rang mostly true for Arena.
“I’m not surprised because it’s old news for us,” said Arena, a retired shipyard worker.
The accusations capped a lengthy investigation into NYCHA, the largest housing authority in the country. Prosecutors accused NYCHA of covering up its actions, lying to the federal government about lead paint inspections and deceiving federal inspectors. In a consent decree filed with the complaint, NYCHA admitted the accusations and the city agreed to spend at least a billion dollars in additional funds to improve conditions.
But for all of the familiarity, the investigation’s conclusions about the extent of potential lead-paint problems angered some residents in the Williamsburg Houses, where the findings were particularly striking.
At the Williamsburg Houses, a complex built in the 1930s that houses more than 3,000 people, prosecutors said NYCHA has found lead paint in 91 percent of all apartments tested, although court papers did not specify how many were tested. However, only 6 percent of workers in charge of 1,800 paint and plaster jobs there in 2016 were properly trained in lead-safe practices, prosecutors said.
“Son of a gun,” Angela Jones, who has lived in the Williamsburg Houses for about 40 years, said when told about the allegations. Jones, 60, said she was furious that her four children, all adults now, may have been at risk without her knowing. Sitting at one of the development’s park benches, Sharon Nyamekye, 70, said the findings reinforced her suspicions that the peeling paint in her apartment may have lead and may be endangering the health of her three grandchildren, who visit often.
“It’s gone downhill here,” said Nyamekye, who has lived in the Williamsburg Houses for 47 years. “Everything used to be pristine. They’re not doing the upkeep like they should.”
When asked about lead paint at the Williamsburg Houses, Robin Levine, the housing authority’s chief spokeswoman, said NYCHA is reviewing all the allegations in the complaint.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a news conference Monday that despite past “mistakes” with lead paint inspections eschewed for years, NYCHA had complied with all lead inspections mandated by local law last year.
“I’m not going to have an apartment that has any lead present that is not remediated,” de Blasio said. “We will use whatever means we need to address that situation.”
Residents across the city were divided over the announcement that as part of the settlement a court-appointed monitor will oversee NYCHA’s compliance with lead paint laws and its efforts to make repairs and improvements.
At the Patterson Houses in the South Bronx, some residents were hopeful, reasoning that any change could only be for the better. Others feared that their history of neglect foreshadowed their future.
“It’ll probably be more of the same,” Rick Lebron, 30, said. “I don’t know exactly what the problem is, but it just takes them so long to do anything.”
Lebron recited a litany of problems: the hole in his bathroom; the sink on the bathroom floor waiting to be reinstalled; the struggle to keep his girlfriend’s son safe from pests. He sees the underlying problem not as a matter of oversight but of NYCHA not having the money to hire the number of staff it needs to tend to its residents. At the Harlem River Houses, Monisha McBride said she hoped the new monitor would help NYCHA right its ship.
“It may tell them that, ‘You can’t cut corners. You’re not going to be getting away with what you’ve been getting away with,'” said McBride, 32, who has lived in the houses for four years with her 9-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son. “I think it will help a little bit.”
She added that she has complained to NYCHA about problems with mice, a leaking roof, a broken pipe and lead paint. Mold, she said, seems to worsen her daughter’s asthma.
“You have children getting sick,” she said. “Things like that we have to deal with while they take their time.”