For too long, the New York City Housing Authority was treated like the neglected child of New York City. It was almost as though 400,000 residents and 10,000 workers were invisible.
The buildings fell apart, and the corridors and parks were overrun by crime. People called and called but still waited for years for the simplest of repairs. Employees asked for more training, resources and funding to improve conditions but were denied. Money was allocated for more security measures and renovations, but it sat unused.
We did not just sit and take it. Both NYCHA residents and the people who work there stood together and made their voices heard. Local 237 Teamsters took action, and along with other labor organizations, we took to the streets and let the world know that the situation at NYCHA was unacceptable. For years now, our efforts have dominated the newspapers and political conversation in New York.
At long last, we are beginning to see the fruits of our labor. Mayor Bill de Blasio made improving NYCHA a cornerstone of his campaign and has followed through to fulfill the campaign promises he made at Local 237’s Mayoral Candidate Forum. First, he appointed a new NYCHA chair. He then suspended NYCHA payments to the city for police service, freeing up precious dollars for repairs. Last week, the mayor announced he would spend an additional $210 million to help keep NYCHA safe and fix the aging buildings.
These improvements are welcome but long overdue. NYCHA, the largest public housing system in the world, is a city unto itself. It not only provides housing but the opportunity to live in affordable housing that New York City has offered to generations of its residents. But people cannot get to work and feed their families if they can’t use the elevators because they are broken or unsafe. Children can’t succeed at school if they are up all night freezing because the heater is broken or fearful of criminals lurking in dark walkways and hallways. We owe them better.
At the very least, we need to keep the people in NYCHA safe. The crime rate in public housing has been creeping back up, and it never enjoyed the same drop that the rest of the city did in the past several decades. It’s not just NYCHA residents who are at risk, but also the employees. In the past several years, there have been multiple incidents in which our members have been attacked or victimized by crime.
Our union has succeeded in passing a bill through the state Legislature that would increase the criminal penalties for assaults on NYCHA workers as they perform their duties. We now await Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature on S3965A. This law would help protect workers by deterring violent crime.
The mayor and NYCHA Chairman Shola Olatoye have publicly said they would begin installing the security cameras that have been promised for years. They also will spend millions more putting lighting outside many buildings where crimes have occurred. These are good first steps to ensuring the peace and prosperity that NYCHA residents and employees deserve.
We are starting to win the fight, but we cannot stop here. There is a long way to go to ensure that NYCHA not only improves but also becomes a shining example for public housing all over the country. New York City has often led the way on many important issues, and now more than ever it is setting the agenda on the national discussion about economic equality and progressive values. As we try to address affordable housing issues across the entire city, NYCHA must continue to be a critical part of that effort.