Standing at the pulpit, Nancy Baptiste led her congregation in reciting not amens or hymns, but the number most public housing tenants have committed to memory:
That’s the phone number New York City Housing Authority, or NYCHA, tenants call when something needs to be fixed. Too often, Baptiste said, no one shows up, the wrong work gets done, or the maintenance crew makes the problem worse.
“Enough is enough,” said Baptiste, who lives in Canarsie’s Bayview Houses. “It’s time for the mayor to show up and be accountable. Give NYCHA the money it needs to finish the work, hire enough staff to get the job done right, and make sure they’re properly supervised so the work is completed.”
Baptiste was speaking at a March 17 meeting at Our Lady of Mercy Church in Brownsville. More than 400 tenants from housing developments in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan gathered to make sure their voices were heard by NYCHA Chairwoman Shola Olatoye. They told stories of no heat on below-freezing nights, rampant mold that returns after being painted over and seniors threatened with losing their apartments.
Rosemary Clark of Canarsie’s Breukelen Houses said no one has helped her with her NYCHA woes. The day of the meeting she had no heat or hot water, and she said it has been off and on for the past two weeks. Clark said she has called in four work orders with no response.
Yaniris Diaz who lives in the Lower East Side’s Baruch Houses said the constant leaks and mold in her apartment didn’t get fixed until she was able to get the advocacy groups Manhattan Together and South Bronx Churches to argue on her behalf.
“Repairs are treated like special favors, not like the right of tenants,” Diaz said.
Those two advocacy groups, and several other churches and nonprofits involved with the coalition known as Metro Industrial Area Foundation-NY, coordinated the meeting between Olatoye and the tenants.
Olatoye, NYCHA’s chairwoman, heard the tenants’ complaints and warned the audience the fix would not come quickly.
“This has been a 30-year decline and disinvestment in public housing,” Olatoye said. “The solutions, as I’m sure you all can tell me and tell each other, are not going to happen overnight.”
Olatoye said NYCHA would need about $16.5 billion to make all the repairs and improvements needed. “It’s going to take a lot of money,” she said. “It’s very fitting that on Monday 900 NYCHA residents took time off work and demanded the state reinstate support for public housing.”
For more than a decade, NYCHA has operated under deficits due to reduced federal, state and city funding. Though NYCHA says it suffers from inadequate support for its 334 developments housing more than 400,000 residents, others criticize it for missing out on funding opportunities. A December 2014 audit by Comptroller Scott Stringer noted that NYCHA neglected to secure $700 million due to administrative negligence.
The city can’t wait around for the state or federal government to provide more funding, says East Brooklyn Congregations organizer Grant Lindsay. “If the excuse is the city can’t do more until the state does more, you’re just kicking the can down the road,” he said.
Annette Tomlin, who has lived in Canarsie’s Breukelen Houses for 44 years, agreed and said she didn’t expect much to change after the meeting.
“I’m pissed off because they’re lying,” Tomlin said. “They allocate money to foolishness and not to what’s needed.” She cited lax policing, chronic mold problems and slow response times for maintenance issues as three problems she wants NYCHA to address.
Rev. David Brawley, of St. Paul Community Baptist Church, presented a list of demands to the chairwoman, including more senior housing and addressing the backlog of open maintenance tickets. The chairwoman promised that a large portion of the mayor’s new affordable housing units will be designated for seniors, but made no commitment to resolve the open tickets within the group’s timeline.
She agreed to meet with the group in 30 days.
If their demands continue to go unmet, Brawley said it might be time to take to the streets.
“I’ll bet that might just get the mayor’s attention,” said Rev. Brawley. “He might even show up on time” — a line that drew a hearty laugh from the congregation — “and start fixing NYCHA and supporting Shola Olatoye.”
For more news about NYCHA, follow Stop the Mold: Tracking the Scourge in NYC Public Housing, a joint investigative project between the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and the New York Daily News.