The Fix Is Out

Public Housing Crumbles on republicans’ Watch

In the shank of last week's killer heat wave, Bob stood in the lobby-turned-oven of his Williamsburg apartment building and rethought his next move. It was about 8:30 at night, and he had planned to take the elevator home to his 18th-floor apartment to cool off for the evening. Instead, a familiar scene forced him to change his approach: The elevator was broken.

"I'm going to go back and sit in my car with the air conditioning on for a few minutes, and then I'll walk up," said Bob, 35, who would not give his last name. "I've done this before. It'll take me less than 10 minutes to get up there."

Walking 18 flights of stairs in stifling heat is daunting, but possible, for a man in his midthirties. But for hundreds of other tenants of Williams Plaza, a group of buildings that contain 577 apartments run by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the task is near impossible. As Bob headed for his car, an elderly couple, the Rosados, braced for an 18-story climb home; the journey would take them at least 15 sweltering minutes. When their son, Daniel, complained that the elevator breaks down at least once a week, his father corrected him: "It's more like three or four times."

Chronically dysfunctional elevators are just one problem at Williams Plaza, according to a report released last week by state comptroller Carl McCall. Unreliable boilers and a dramatically degenerated roof are among the development's worst traits. McCall's study showed that problems at Williams Plaza are common citywide: just around the corner at Independence Towers, faulty elevators left cane-reliant seniors with a baffling choice: walk upstairs, or impose on neighbors who live on lower floors and who might let them spend the night.

Across the water at Staten Island's 693-unit Stapleton houses and in Harlem's 1207-unit Drew Hamilton houses, McCall's staff found most kitchens in need of immediate attention. And in the Bronx, McCall found, the heating system for the 441 apartments in the Baychester Houses was rated as poor, and bathrooms in the Linden Houses, with 1586 apartments in East New York, had declined from their already lowly rating of poor a decade ago, the last time the comptroller reviewed such developments.

The McCall study focuses on the 21 NYCHA projects that were built by the city or the state; another 325 NYCHA developments are federal and were the subject of a February McCall report. The 21 projects contain 20,000 apartments and are home to 59,000 residents. "NYCHA housing is one of the most significant public housing systems in the country, a gem that New York City should be able to be proud of," says McCall. "This is not simply valuable infrastructure for the city; it is also home to thousands of people. That's why we're looking critically at what we have now and asking what can be done to ready it for the future."

Relying on NYCHA's own management reports that rate physical conditions, McCall's staffers compared the results to a similar comptroller study done 10 years ago. "Much to our dismay," the current report states, "we conclude that the buildings...have deteriorated significantly since we last reviewed their condition."

Tenants of the developments don't need number-crunching bureaucrats to know their buildings are in trouble. "We have many, many serious problems here," says Joseph Garber, a member of the New York City Public Housing Residents' Alliance who has lived in Independence Towers, a cluster of five 21-story buildings, since 1976. Independence Towers has been thrust into Williamsburg's long-standing housing battle between Orthodox Jews and Latinos, and is one of three buildings ordered by a federal judge to set aside apartments for Latinos, since Jews have been favored there for years.

Garber, who himself expresses the housing dilemma in racial terms—complaining about Latino supers and black tenants—acknowledges that disrepair does not discriminate. "If the elevator doesn't work," he says, "the effect is the same if you're black, white, green, or Hispanic."

The problem, predictably enough, is money. When the city and state built public housing, it was assumed that the rent roll would cover modernization. By the mid 1970s, rising costs proved that calculation wrong, and tenants have been shortchanged since. Governor George Pataki exacerbated the dilemma in 1998 when he eliminated an operating budget that the state had provided to NYCHA annually since 1969—a move that has resulted in two yet-unresolved NYCHA lawsuits against the governor. City budgets have tried to bridge the gap, but even those have fallen short, forcing NYCHA to channel federal money to pay for maintenance for city and state stock. Spokespeople for the governor and for the mayor did not return calls.

Even NYCHA does not dispute McCall's findings, saying the report "merely underscores a well known fact: public housing in NYC continues to age...and available funding is inadequate." In fact, 10 years ago, NYCHA and the state comptroller figured modernizing state and city projects would have cost $200 million; the price tag today is more than $1 billion.

The escalating costs make housing advocates wonder why city and state officials would not intervene sooner. "I hope it's just an oversight, but I fear an attitude that says people who live in public housing should not be full citizens, and that if you live there, you'd better not expect much," says David Jones, president and CEO of the Community Service Society. "This is clearly so important, but it is happening below the sightlines. There's been no public discussion about this."

McCall's report comes as NYCHA itself is undergoing profound transformation. In January, chair Ruben Franco resigned after three firefighters were killed battling a blaze in a NYCHA building where the sprinklers were turned off; both Franco and Mayor Rudy Giuliani deny the resignation was linked to the deaths. And the authority faces a huge challenge this fall when a controversial federal law will give working people preference in getting placement in public housing.

McCall's most recent report mimics his February study of NYCHA's federally funded buildings. McCall found two-thirds of the 104 projects surveyed had at least one major problem. But unlike city- and state-backed developments, federally built developments had improved in some areas.

"What you start to see here is clear," says Jones. "There are some in the city and state administration who have been seeking the privatization of public housing, and one way to accelerate that is to let the buildings go to rack and ruin until they're too deterioriated to fix. It's pretty Machiavellian, I must admit, but we're not talking about a huge amount of money to fix this, and this is a time of real surplus. We're not talking about expanding public housing, just keeping it up to code. You just start to wonder why they won't do it."

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