When the head of the New York City Housing Authority met with residents at a chapel in Brownsville on Tuesday night, there were questions about failing radiators, missing kitchen sinks, moldy walls, broken doors, pigeon excrement and more.
These were all part of a more general question: A year into his administration, to what extent is Mayor de Blasio accountable for the continuing maintenance woes at NYCHA, which has been shortchanged by all levels of government for at least a decade?
Hundreds of public housing tenants in Brooklyn took school buses from their churches to Our Lady of Mercy Roman Catholic Church in Brownsville, where they held up placards bearing the name of their homes—"Seth Low Houses," "Marcus Garvey," "Pink," "Glenwood." They had come for a meeting organized by East Brooklyn Congregations (EBC) and hosted by Reverend David K. Brawley, pastor of St. Paul's Community Baptist Church, where NYCHA chair Shola Olatoye was the featured guest.
"[Ms. Olatoye] started her job just about a year ago now," Fr. Ed Mason, pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Church, said. "Since then, she has been available to meet us in our churches and her office. Ms. Olatoye has been respectful and available, and we thank you for that." The crowd applauded. "But respect has to come with action, action that leads to concrete results." Results like fixing the mold, broken doors, and other ills that plague that ailing Housing Authority.
Pia Benton, a member of St. Paul's Baptist Church who lives in NYCHA's Breukelen Houses in Canarsie, described her ordeals. "I'm here tonight because my family has a right to live in a clean, functional environment," she said. "Last night, my heat was out, again. It was so cold I had to keep my oven door open and boil water." She showed a picture of a mess made by pigeons in the stairwell, too. "I'm glad you're here, Ms. Olatoye," she said. "Because I want you to see my face and hear my voice. I am a mother, and I want the same thing for my kids as you want for yours."
"I need you to change my apartment to the apartment of my dreams," Dulce Fernandez, who lives in the Pink Houses, said. When Yaniris Diaz, who has lived in Baruch Houses for fifteen years, enumerated the repairs needed on her apartment and the ordeals she's suffered to have them addressed, the crowd groaned in sympathy: a flood in the kitchen, a fire in the living room, mold in the bathroom. NYCHA employees took her sink and told her they "had no idea when they could bring a new one." Appointments to clean her apartment were cancelled and no reason given. "Repairs that do happen are treated like special favors, not the right of every tenant," Diaz said. "SBC [South Bronx Churches] leaders were actually told, 'We'll fix your apartment because you're in SBC. Don't tell any of your neighbors.' We told every neighbor."
"Every time there's a problem, NYCHA says to call the maintenance hotline," said Nancy Baptiste, another speaker. "We all know the number," she said, and the entire crowd called it out together in unison. But often, no one ever comes, Baptiste said. "Mayor de Blasio likes to say that the backlog of complaints is way down. He says he's eliminated tens of thousands of complaints. And I am here to tell you, Mayor de Blasio, that that is a bunch of nonsense!"
Baptiste said that NYCHA has three ways of eliminating work orders without actually addressing them: they give you a ticket and don't show up, they do the wrong work, or they make the problem worse. "Enough is enough!" Baptiste cried. "It's time for the mayor to show up and be accountable. Give NYCHA the money it needs to finish the work, hire enough staff to get the job done, and make sure they are properly supervised so the work is completed."
Brawley concluded his remarks by asking Olatoye to commit to two things: Filling 440 work orders by Memorial Day, and building senior housing on NYCHA land.
To the first demand, Olatoye would not commit to a deadline that she said she may not be able to fulfill. She agreed to meet with advocates in thirty days instead. In response to the second demand, she said it was included under the rubric of the mayor's affordable housing plan, and said details would come out in May.
NYCHA receives an astonishing 10,000 new work orders a day, Olatoye said. She urged residents to see the current state of NYCHA's problems as the result of 30 years of disinvestment, rather than the one year of her tenure.
"It's been a tremendous year punctuated with moments of heartbreak, certainly," she said. She said she has visited over 80 developments. "I have seen your faces, I have heard your voices," she said.
Brawley ended the evening by asking Olatoye, "At what point will you tell the mayor you can't lead an agency that he refuses to support?" He asked the members of EBC to take to the streets to get the mayor's attention.
*Correction: The original version of this story was changed to correct the spelling of names.