Gotham Gazette

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At NYCHA, Home is No Safe Harbor - But It Must Be

nycha manhattan

NYCHA in Manhattan (photo: NYCHA)

The coronavirus pandemic has shone a stark and unflattering light on the inadequacy of the social safety net in our city and across this country. And nowhere is this failure more glaring than at the New York City Housing Authority, or NYCHA.

Due to COVID-19, we all must “shelter in place” in the safety of our homes, but for over half a million NYCHA residents, home is no safe harbor. Years of state and federal underfunding have left buildings with no hot water, toxic mold, lead paint, unhygienic conditions, and countless outstanding repairs.

NYCHA, which is essentially run by the Mayor under the watch of a federal monitor, has a crumbling infrastructure and legacy of mismanagement that virtually guaranteed a slow and ineffective response to the pandemic. Yet the Authority made promises it knew it could never deliver on, claiming in March that it would start disinfecting all buildings at least three times per week — five times for senior buildings. But tenants confirm that this is not happening and their buildings continue to be hotbeds for the spread of the virus. One tenant advocate clearly stated the grave stakes of NYCHA’s failure: “People are going to die in their apartments.”

Let’s be clear: the high levels of infection and fatalities - the full scope of which we may never know - did not have to happen. The severity of this pandemic’s impact on NYCHA residents could have been prevented if New York did not persistently underfund and neglect NYCHA’s infrastructure. For years, community advocates and many of us in the state Legislature have been urgently pleading for the state and federal governments to take action on cleaning, funding, and fixing NYCHA. Our pleas have been ignored again and again.

This chronic disinvestment in NYCHA was completely unacceptable long before this crisis began. It was unacceptable when NYCHA residents were left without heat or hot water due to failing boilers during the coldest winter months. It was unacceptable when botched lead-based paint inspections left tenants exposed to deadly toxins. And it is unacceptable now. It is clearer than ever that the government’s failure to support NYCHA has always cost lives, and now it’s costing lives more than ever.

For NYCHA residents, this is a story of compounding inequalities. Many of the folks who live in one of NYCHA’s roughly 174,000 apartments are also the essential workers at the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are taking care of us in our hospitals, making sure we can still get our weekly groceries, keeping our water and electricity running, and operating our buses and subway system — all while putting themselves at further risk of infection. It is beyond shameful that when they get home from high-risk work, they are still in danger, perhaps more so, because of unclean and unsafe apartments. And for NYCHA’s senior population, the risk of infection and death is even higher.

This is outrageous, bordering on criminal, and demands further action at every level of government; city, state and federal. Decades of underfunding by the federal and state governments are only part of the problem. NYCHA’s history of dishonesty, corruption, and managerial incompetence have made it far worse. And just days ago, NYCHA’s federal monitor admitted that they will be unable to meet their goals for identifying and repairing unsafe conditions on time.

More than anything, I am deeply saddened by the way our NYCHA residents are being willfully ignored and mistreated — they deserve a government that will fight for them, not turn a blind eye to their suffering. Like so many institutions of government, NYCHA needs to rebuild trust with its residents, and that starts with honestly and competently addressing the problems they are facing today, not making false promises or missing more deadlines.

We need NYCHA’s leadership to come forward with real, workable plans, with real timelines, not only to address the pandemic as it recedes and potentially rises again into a new wave of sickness and death, but also on the many long-standing repairs and other health and safety issues that continue to threaten NYCHA residents. And we need all levels of government at the table to finally fund our public housing so it can provide safe shelter to public housing tenants. We needed to do this yesterday.

State Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou represents parts of Lower Manhattan. On Twitter @yuhline.

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