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More than a sleepover, a real eye-opener

Misani | 8/8/2013, 9:49 a.m. | Updated on 8/8/2013, 9:49 a.m.
Our union proudly represents nearly 9,000 members who work in New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) developments. Their work ranges ...
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Our union proudly represents nearly 9,000 members who work in New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) developments. Their work ranges from apartment repairs, to grounds caretaking, to boiler and elevator services, to rent collections. A third of them also live in NYCHA apartments.

Long-standing resident and worker frustration reached a new high with threatened sequestration cuts in federal dollars—the main source of funding. The $208 million cuts would mean a loss of jobs and services. Despite Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s pledge to restore $58 million of federal dollars lost, NYCHA already has a $61 million operating deficit and $6 billion-7 billion in needed capital repairs.

This is a case of too little, too late. With a three-year backlog of repairs, security cameras that are funded but not installed, reminders of Hurricane Sandy in affected developments and a proposal to build high-end housing on NYCHA property, we joined with residents to tell Chairman John Rhea, “Enough is Enough!” At a recent City Hall rally, we informed all of the mayoral contenders: “NYCHA is broken. You need to fix it.” Only one mayoral candidate showed up, former Comptroller Bill Thompson. Thompson not only vowed to end the suffering of NYCHA residents if he becomes mayor, but also called for the immediate dismissal of Rhea.

Thompson later invited me to join him and the other mayoral candidates for a “sleepover” organized by the Rev. Al Sharpton at the Lincoln Houses in East Harlem. Residents of the complex are suing NYCHA for 3,800 unfulfilled repair orders dating back to 2009. Thompson knew I had repeatedly attempted to address the backlog and other problems by giving extensive recommendations to Rhea, all of which went unheeded.

After speeches and a tour, we met our host for the evening, Barbara Gamble, a 44-year NYCHA resident. Without air conditioning and with a moldy bathroom, we felt the residents’ pain and discomfort. We saw the struggles of Gamble, a proud grandmother who routinely cleans the hallways of her entire floor.

The next morning, all the candidates spoke about what they saw: ripped-out kitchen cabinets, chipped paint, water damage, faulty toilets, broken flooring and urine in the elevators (which frequently do not work). But, in my view, this was not the worst part of living in a NYCHA development. No, it was the news that a few days after our visit, a 23-year-old woman was shot to death in a location where NYCHA failed to install security cameras, even though a City Council member had allocated $1 million for the security measures. Despite these conditions, 227,000 people are on a NYCHA waiting list because affordable housing in New York City is scarce. The wait can take years.

Many former residents, including a New York City mayor and a Supreme Court justice, have all gone on to make lasting, positive impacts on society. Yet, as I saw the hardships of Gamble and her neighbors firsthand, it became clear that what is wrong with public housing today is not only broken buildings, but broken management. The next mayor, who will have the ability to appoint a new chairman and form a new board, will have the ability to fix it.