Georgia Stephen, 72, says she’s been trapped in her New York City Housing Authority apartment since November 14, 1999. That was the day workers began dismantling her building’s only elevator as part of a project to replace all 28 elevators in Edgemere Houses, a 24-building public housing project in Far Rockaway.
Now Stephen, who’s confined to a wheelchair, says NYCHA isn’t providing her with the help it promised to get down the stairs of her building, leaving her stranded just two stories off the ground, angry and toothless–Stephen’s dentures were in the shop when the elevators went out. “How am I gonna go get my teeth?” she asked. “They’re ready now, but I can’t get out.”
Other Edgemere residents echo Stephen’s complaints, charging that the Housing Authority staff assigned to help them get their groceries upstairs routinely ignore their calls for help. One father, Gilbert Luina, says his asthmatic daughter waits 30 minutes to an hour for someone to help her up six flights of stairs. Another resident, Annie King, went into cardiac arrest while struggling unaided down the dingy stairwell of her building on January 3.
The Housing Authority, for its part, vigorously denies leaving tenants in the lurch. The $3.6 million Edgemere contract, awarded to elevator giant Millar, is part of a city-wide effort to replace the worst of NYCHA’s 3,315 elevators. Although bad weather put the project a week behind schedule, the site foreman said he expects to restore service in three buildings by the first week of March.
“There are always some people who feel they’re being ignored, and there are always inconveniences,” said NYCHA spokesman Howard Marder. “But we want them to have modern elevators, and that means we all have to cooperate.”
Marder insisted that NYCHA staff are on hand to help Edgemere tenants do their shopping and run errands like picking up prescription drugs or, perhaps, dentures. In addition, nine handicapped Edgemere tenants were relocated to vacant apartments on lower floors.
The Housing Authority has spent a lot of money on mechanical stair-climbing technology, with limited success. One $7,000 device called the Scalamobil is designed to walk itself up stairs with a resident perched on its back. A second device looks like a piece of misplaced military hardware, crawling up the project stairwell with rubber caterpillar tracks. Right now it’s useless, however, without a matching high-tech wheelchair that was supposed to arrive last December. “Nobody goes this far for their tenants,” said Marder. “I challenge anybody in commercial residential buildings to do what we do at NYCHA.”