As president of City Employees, Local 237, nearly 9,000 of my members work in developments operated by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). 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 throughout the city.
The problems in public housing have gotten a great deal of attention lately, as the long-standing tenant and worker frustration reached a new high 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 in cuts would mean a loss of jobs and services.
Despite Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s pledge to restore $58 million of federal dollars lost, the fact remains that NYCHA already has a $61 million operating deficit and $6-7 billion in much-needed capital repairs.
This is a case of too little, too late. With a three-year backlog of repairs, security cameras funded but not installed, reminders of Sandy everywhere in affected developments (and still without a plan to overcome the devastation of the next storm) and with a proposal—long kept secret—to build high-end housing on NYCHA property,
I have joined our members and residents to say “Enough is Enough!” We even held a huge rally at City Hall recently to send a strong message to all of the mayoral contenders: “NYCHA is broken. You need to fix it.” All of the candidates were invited to join the protest. Only one showed up—Bill Thompson. Thompson vowed to end the long suffering of the more than 600,000 NYCHA residents if he becomes mayor.
I guess I wasn’t surprised when Thompson invited me to join him and the other mayoral candidates for a “sleep-over” organized by Reverend 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. Thompson knew I had made repeated attempts to address the backlog and other key problems, all of which went unheeded.
So, after the many speeches and the grounds tour covered by dozens of reporters during the night of the sleep-over, Thompson and I met our host, Barbara Gamble, a NYCHA resident for 44 years, 30 of which were in the 10th floor apartment we visited. Without air conditioning on the sweltering night and with mold throughout the bathroom, we could now feel the human pain associated with the repair tickets that dated back so many years. We saw the struggles of Gamble— a proud grandmother who takes matters into her own hands by routinely cleaning the hallways of her entire floor!
When we met with the other candidates the next morning, the talk was about what they saw in their host apartments: ripped-out kitchen cabinets, chipped paint, water damage, faulty toilets, broken flooring and urine in the elevators (which frequently do not work). But, in my view, 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 NYC Councilmember. Despite these conditions, 227,000 people are on a waiting list for a NYCHA apartment because affordable housing in NYC is scarce. With an average of only 5,400 to 5,800 openings annually, the wait can take years.
NYCHA began more than 75 years ago as an experiment in municipal responsibility that developed into a model of social pride. Many former residents, including a NYC 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 today is not only broken buildings, but broken management.
The next mayor, with the ability to appoint a new chairman and form a new board, also has the ability to fix it.
Gregory Floyd is president, Teamsters Local 237, IBT
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