A new report from NYC Public Advocate Jumaane Williams details conditions he witnessed in public housing after visiting six NYCHA complexes earlier this year and speaking to tenants about mold and rodent infestations, leaks, broken fire exit doors, out-of-service elevators and heat and hot water outages. “I think folks sometimes don’t understand how bad those conditions are,” he told City Limits.
Dozens of elevator outages. Holes in walls that allow rodents and insects in. Broken fire exit doors. Weeks without heat and hot water in the winter months. A mother of six children with a mold infestation in their apartment that was so bad, the city’s Administration of Children Services (ACS) moved them into a homeless shelter.
Those are just some of the stories outlined in a report to be published Friday from the New York City Public Advocate’s office detailing conditions in six of the city’s NYCHA complexes, following a tour by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams earlier this year to draw attention to the plight of tenants there. Dubbed “How the Other Half Lives in Public Housing,” Williams compares their living conditions to the those endured by people living in New York City’s tenement slums in the 1880s, as told by then-muckraker photojournalist Jacob Riis in his similarly named landmark book.
“Jacob Riis wrote a book about how the other half lives, talking about the tenement situation and how bad those conditions were,” Williams told City Limits in an interview this week. “130 years later, the title is still really appropriate, and that’s a stunning revelation.”
His tour—which included conversations with more than 60 tenants during visits to Red Hook Houses, Fort Independence Houses, Lincoln Houses, 303 Vernon Ave., Conlon Lihfe Towers Houses and Stapleton Houses—was prompted, Williams said, by the “constant and consistent” complaints his office receives from NYCHA tenants.
“We wanted to do a tour just take a look for ourselves,” Williams said. “I think folks sometimes don’t understand how bad those conditions are.”
Much has been written over the years about NYCHA’s declining housing stock, home to 177,000 apartments where residents were waiting on more than 638,000 open repair work orders in July, up 25 percent from a year before. Officials say public housing needs some $40 billion in capital funds to address those issues, following decades of disinvestment and underfunding from all levels of government.
Poor conditions persist despite a number of NYCHA “rescue plans” unveiled over the years, and a federal monitor that was put in place to oversee operations in 2019. The latest efforts, which include separate plans to turn over some developments to private property management companies and others to a newly created “Preservation Trust,” have promised to unlock new funding streams and improve life for tenants. But many residents remain deeply skeptical or outright opposed to those plans, citing concerns about the erosion of the fundamental nature of public housing.
“NYCHA can’t be above our housing laws, and right now they’ve been acting like that for many, many years,” Williams said. “There are hundreds of thousands of families who are dealing with the repercussions, and they happen to primarily be Black and brown and low income.”
Williams said he wasn’t necessarily surprised by the conditions he saw during his visits, but that they were alarming nonetheless. The report details “families huddled together without heat or hot water during the bitter January cold,” as well as households forced to live without cooking gas and working stoves for months at a time. One family of four living in Staten Island’s Stapleton Houses developed Lyme Disease from ticks brought into their home by a mice infestation, the report describes. Tenants at the Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn “have to learn to live without heat and hot water, that’s how often it goes out,” Williams said.
He was particularly disturbed, he said, by the frequency of elevator outages: From January 2020 to February 2022, the 39 buildings at the six complexes he toured were collectively home to 2,265 out-of-service elevators, what amounts to 43 breakdowns per week. For tenants on the upper floors of NYCHA’s high-rise buildings, that can essentially mean house arrest until the elevator is fixed.
“If you’re a tenant who is disabled or a senior citizen, you are literally trapped in your home,” Williams said. “You can’t get out. You can’t do anything. You can’t go to doctor’s appointments. You can’t go to the grocery store. You can’t get fresh air.”
In response to the report, NYCHA acknowledged the ongoing issues in public housing, noting the desperate need for additional government funding, but also pointed to improvements the housing authority has made in recent years, including several reforms and action plans enacted under an agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development struck in 2019.
“NYCHA has come a long way in the past three years, but there is still a significant amount of work to be done, as well as a continued $40 billion capital need,” NYCHA’s Chief Communications Officer Barbara Brancaccio said.
“Since 2019, the Authority has developed a relationship with the Federal Monitor; released action plans and done extensive work on all seven areas of the 2019 HUD Agreement (pests, waste, heat, elevators, lead, mold and inspections); and added three new departments, Compliance, Quality Assurance and Environmental Health and Safety as part of the Agreement,” she added. “We also created Transformation and Implementation plans to fundamentally change how we do business, in both operations and customer service, which includes launching a Work Order Reform initiative and a neighborhood model.”
Still, Brancaccio said, public housing’s current level of deterioration “is a reflection of the need for investment in our units by all levels of government.”
“We will continue working with our City, State and Federal partners to provide safe and healthy housing to our residents, while our dedicated staff works 24/7 to address issues caused by crumbling infrastructure due to decades of disinvestment,” she said.
In addition to needed funded, Williams’ report includes a number of recommendations for NYCHA, including to the process for making and documenting repairs. His office calls for the city to increase the number of live-in supers at all public housing complexes, as well as to create a list of “reliable contractors” to be in charge of repairs—a response to tenants who say the fixes are often done shoddily without getting to the root of a problem, such as painting over mold rather than remediating the infestation itself.
Both the city and state have passed recent laws to reform the NYCHA repair process, though mostly through documentation. A City Council bill passed last year now allows NYCHA tenants to log repair requests with 311, which is then required to publish a report at the end of the year on those complaints. Another state law will force NYCHA to create a searchable, public online database of work tickets—a response to residents who say their repair orders are often closed without their being notified and in some cases, without the work being completed.
Still, the repair process itself continues to be handled by NYCHA, despite calls from advocates and elected officials who want public housing tenants’ complaints to 311 to trigger automatic inspections by city’s Department of Buildings or Department of Housing Preservation and Development, as is the case with residents outside of NYCHA.
“It’s clear that NYCHA alone is not going to be as responsible as it should be,” Williams said.
“We cannot stop until it’s corrected,” he added. “There’s too many people who are counting on us to be beating the drum and highlighting these horrific conditions, to shame people to start acting.”