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Public housing gets the shaft: The latest NYCHA outrage


More downs than ups. (Luiz C. Ribeiro/New York Daily News)

New York, remarkably, is demolishing public housing before our very eyes. And it’s happening in the most inhumane fashion imaginable: while families are living inside the apartments.

If the New York City Housing Authority planted dynamite charges or slammed a wrecking ball into buildings full of seniors and young children, we’d all scream bloody murder. But if the agency knowingly allows life-threatening conditions to persist, year after year — setting up thousands of tenants for discomfort, illness and death — the public response tends to be the political equivalent of a New York shrug: What are ya gonna do?

A recent investigation by NY1 reporter Courtney Gross captured the outrageous conditions at the Throggs Neck Houses in the Bronx. A disabled woman named Nancy Montanez and her daughter Cristy, who has cerebral palsy, have been stuck in their fourth-floor apartment for more than three months because the elevators don’t work.

As Gross discovered, “between 2012 and 2018, the number of elevator outages climbed by more than 16% — from almost 38,000 in 2012 to more than 44,000 last year.”

That averages 121 elevators going out of service every day, for an average of 12 hours. The agency has a grand total of 10 certified mechanics who are each supposed to inspect 30 elevators a day — a level of understaffing that would be funny if it weren’t potentially deadly.

NYCHA’s reaction? Something close to a yawn.

“I would love to be able to hire 300 inspectors, 400 inspectors, whatever that number that I need, but we are resource challenged,” says Joey Koch, NYCHA’s senior vice president for operations support services. “So unfortunately, we have 10 inspectors. That’s what we have.”

For perspective, the Real Deal business magazine noted earlier this year: “NYCHA has recorded 73 injuries in its elevators since 2013, including seven last year. That means these incidents occurred at a rate of five times more than in other buildings in the city. In that same time frame, there were three elevator-related fatalities in the agency’s buildings.”

It’s not a new problem. More than a decade ago, the Daily News reported on an elevator mechanic named Noel Roman who blew the whistle on the agency in 2006. "The elevator support unit and a few other NYCHA departments are just wasting money," he wrote to then-City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez. "There is so much impropriety going on, I fear for my life."

As The News noted: “His warnings continued for two years, right up to the death in August of 5-year-old Jacob Newman, who plunged down a shaft when an elevator malfunctioned in the Taylor Wythe Houses in Brooklyn.”

The very next year, I wrote about a woman in East Harlem whose friend died when, after suffering a heart attack on the 13th floor of a building in the Wagner Houses, paramedics trying to save her got stuck in the elevator.

A few weeks later I met Larry Gonzalez, whose wife, Lillian Milan, died trying to walk up 10 flights in the Bushwick Houses with her oxygen tank because the elevators were out of service.

And on Christmas Eve in 2015, 84-year-old Olegario Pabon died in the Bronx Road Houses when he stepped onto a defective elevator that jerked upward, trapping his leg and hand, and then dropping him on his head.

Three NYCHA workers who allegedly falsified inspection and repair data about the incident were criminally indicted. As The News reported: “From 2014 through June 2018, Derrick Graham, 49, Virgel Fincher, 51, and Alan Guadagno, 61, would sometimes sign off on preventive maintenance elevator inspections that hadn’t occurred, according to indictments unsealed by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.”

A great deal of this deadly malfeasance has occurred on the watch of Mayor de Blasio, who is quick to point to shrinking federal funding as the source of the problem.

The crisis goes deeper. The city is watching, paralyzed, as public housing crumbles in what amounts to demolition by neglect.

Louis is political anchor of NY1 News.