Astoria Houses tenants call on NYCHA to restore their cooking gas and keep them informed of a restoration timeline

Angélica Acevedo/QNS

Astoria Houses tenants were joined by a few dozen community members on Saturday, Nov. 21, to call on NYCHA to restore the cooking gas at one of their buildings and communicate openly with its tenants.

The rally, organized by Astoria Houses tenant Shawnta “L.A. Paparazzi” Alston and Justice for All Coalition (JFAC), was held on the parking lot of Radial Park on 27-50 First St.

“We’re standing here on a vital issue that’s affecting the Astoria residents,” said Alston, a poet and longtime resident of Astoria Houses — or “Astoria Mansions,” as she calls it — after asking everyone to raise a peace sign. “I want you to put yourself in my shoes for a moment, and [the shoes of] the other Astoria residents … We’re standing together to convey a message: We need your help, we need you to get this word out.”

Tenants at 1-04 Astoria Blvd. have been without cooking gas since Sept. 23. While they work to restore the gas for the 48 apartments in the building, NYCHA gave tenants one hot plate per household. Community organizations and neighbors have donated groceries as well as hot meals in the last two months.

But Alston and other tenants of 1-4 Astoria Blvd. said NYCHA did not immediately communicate with them about the outage and restoration timeline. Management has since held four socially distant floor meetings and say they are in touch with the Tenants Association.

However, Alston said management may stop holding the floor meetings due to COVID-19 spikes. She’s against this idea, pointing out that there is space for social distancing.

Angélica Acevedo/QNS

According to a NYCHA spokesperson, the asbestos abatement work that was needed for gas restoration to move forward was completed on Friday, Nov. 20, and repair work began on Monday, Nov. 23. There is currently no set date for restoration, as once repairs are completed, an inspection of the gas piping infrastructure must be conducted.

But some residents are frustrated and want a more timely resolution.

Kimberly Elliot, a resident of Astoria Houses, previously told QNS a better temporary solution could be for NYCHA to use a portion of tenants’ rent in order to purchase electric stoves that tenants could use while they restore the gas in the building.

“I’m a family of three, I become a family of seven during the week. I have three grandchildren, and my daughter is an essential worker. Trying to feed my children and my grandchildren on the one hot plate they gave us is impossible,” said Elliot.

Elliot said she doesn’t understand why NYCHA plans to switch to electric stoves sometime in the future, as part of their Blueprint for Change Initiative, instead of doing it now.

“We need it right now. We can’t wait for the future,” she said. “I need to have some way to cook a meal, to cook Thanksgiving dinner, which is coming up, to cook Christmas dinner. Housing is not reimbursing us for the food we’re buying out. They’re saying you’re on your own. They’re saying for those who are receiving public assistance, go back to HRA and get an allowance. Some of us are not receiving anything from HRA. Some of us are seniors, some of us have disabilities.”

NYCHA is ordering 1,200 meals from seven different vendors for Thanksgiving, and Community Engagement and Partnerships’ seasonal staff will deliver the meals to each unit, according to a NYCHA spokesperson. The vendors are all NYCHA residents and caterers who have graduated from the Authority’s Food Business Pathway program.  

NYCHA’s Family Partnerships Department also sent a document detailing meal options to every resident affected by the gas outage, as well as called every household with a senior to enroll them in the Get Food Program with their consent.

Delia Barrios and her daughter, Ashley, spoke about some of the challenges of not having cooking gas.

“We need them to fix the problem. We have children. We have seniors. There are many families who need to have the gas because it’s essential,” Delia said in Spanish. “My husband works. We have three children. We’re five at home.”

Ashley said her father is working every day in order to earn money so they can eat.

“We can’t cook, so we have to eat out. It’s really expensive to eat out every day,” she said, adding that her current living situation coupled with remote learning has made this a stressful time. “I know living in the projects, like we’re not rich … but not having heat and seeing all these construction things, it just makes me feel like I am poor. I already know I am but I don’t need to be reminded of it every single day. I just want the basics.”

Angélica Acevedo/QNS

Local elected officials previously called on NYCHA to restore the cooking gas outage before the holidays, but the gas restoration will take longer than expected.

State Senator Michael Gianaris attended the rally and spoke about the bill he introduced to hold NYCHA accountable of repairs.

“NYCHA’s supposed to be fixing the gas problems when they happen. They’re supposed to be repairing these apartments when they’re having problems,” said Gianaris. “A lot of people who are not familiar with NYCHA, [who] don’t live here, they have a misunderstanding about NYCHA residents. NYCHA residents pay rent to live where they live, and part of their rent covers utilities. The residents of Astoria Houses at 1-04 are paying rent for something they’re not getting. We’re introducing a bill to make sure the people who are suffering without utilities are not paying for utilities, so they will get a discount in the rent if we get this bill passed — but that’s just the least we can do.”

Stan Morse, a lead organizer of JFAC, spoke about the ongoing neglect and mistreatment NYCHA residents endure, including mold and leaks. He added that NYCHA’s new pilot program to decentralize the repair system is not doing its job.

“I see the same old, same old, that pilot program is not working,” said Morse. “What we really want, instead of you talking about privatizing NYCHA, get the money to fix it. We don’t need RAD, we do not need the Blueprint, we don’t need infill, we don’t need any of that. What we need is the political will to do the right thing and fix these apartments. Nobody should be living in these conditions.”

Astoria Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who said she helped create the pilot program Morse mentioned, said she’ll be going to the office herself to find out why they’re not there. She added that she’ll push for the federal government to allocate $10 billion to public housing and after learning about resident management program, which JFAC has been pushing for, will introduce a bill to move it forward.

“It’s the law now, that you can create resident managements, but they’re not doing it,” said Maloney. “So when I go back to Washington, I’m going to introduce a bill that says that if the tenants can show they’re not doing a good job, they’re not in the office and they’re not repairing, then they don’t get their money unless they create a resident management that can do the job.”

Astoria Houses is not the only NYCHA complex with a gas outage or other repair issues in New York City.

JFAC is helping NYCHA residents across the city organize to get the agency to actively respond to its tenants’ needs, with a growing number of residents calling for a NYCHA-wide rent strike.

“NYCHA has breached the warranty of habitability,” said Dannelly Rodriguez, an organizer with JFAC. “They have breached their contract to every single tenant that lives in Astoria Mansions by failing to repair the gas, and when you fail to repair the gas, you have failed your end of the bargain and every single tenant has the legal right to withhold their damn rent until they fix the gas. NYCHA cannot retaliate against you because if they retaliate against you, that is illegal.”