‘NYCHA buildings are dilapidated, and residents are bombarded with every health and quality of life issue imaginable, from leaking pipes to broken elevators.’
Imagine this: you live in a one-bedroom ground floor apartment—a place your family has called home for 10 years. In the living room, you cover your loveseat in plastic, not to keep it pristine the way your grandmother used to, but to protect from the constant leaking. While the monotonous dripping induces anxiety, the earthy stench from the mold that creeps across your ceiling is suffocating. Your 8-year-old daughter has uncontrollable asthma attacks that result in costly hospitalizations and prescriptions. Your son, a 3-year-old who puts everything in his mouth, was also hospitalized after eating lead paint chips. He doesn’t get much sleep on his living room cot. He is terrorized at night by a monster he calls “The Tail,” which in reality is not one, but several rats infesting the walls of your building. You try your best to control them with traps, but you can’t fix the gaping holes in your cabinets, or the mountain of trash outside your building. As you wait for what seems like eternity for current issues to be remediated, you dread the next inevitable blow: the next gas leak that takes months to restore, the next violent crime that traumatizes your children, the next storm to flood your apartment, or knock out power. Your home should be a safe haven, but instead causes disease, stress, and despair.
While this scenario is fictionalized, it is based on the reality of what hundreds of thousands of New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) residents have endured for decades. NYCHA is the largest public housing system in North America, with a population larger than cities like Atlanta, Miami, Minneapolis, New Orleans, and St. Louis. Yet NYCHA buildings are dilapidated, and residents are bombarded with every health and quality of life issue imaginable, from leaking pipes to broken elevators. With the added stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, now is a critical time to address NYCHA’s notorious health, environmental, and safety issues.
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Housing is a well-known social determinant of health. Poor indoor environmental health is one of the biggest threats residents face, with mold among the most cited hazards. In their comprehensive survey of NYCHA’s Far Rockaway residents, the grassroots organization Community Voices Heard found that residents exposed to mold experienced headaches, sinus congestion, shortness of breath, skin irritation, central nervous system problems, chronic fatigue, and most prevalent of all, asthma. Asthma, which is also triggered by factors like pest infestations, dust, and poor ventilation, is the number one reason children in New York City’s lowest-income neighborhoods visit the emergency room, and New Yorkers in asthma hotspots are five times more likely to live in public housing. While less prevalent, lead and asbestos are also NYCHA problems, both linked to serious and irreversible health effects such as neurological damage and lung cancer respectively.
NYCHA housing conditions are also connected to infectious disease. Last year, a national study showed that poor living conditions are associated with increased COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, even after accounting for other contributing factors such as demographics, lack of health insurance, and comorbidities. The researchers attributed this increase to poor ventilation, dirty air filters, and inadequate plumbing, all of which plague NYCHA residents. In addition, the dense populations in public housing and the high concentrations of elderly residents and essential workers, make NYCHA residents particularly susceptible to COVID-19. This explains the finding from the city Health Department showing that NYCHA residents account for around 7 percent of COVID-19 deaths in NYC, while making up only 4 percent of the population.
In summary, health hazards are so commonplace in NYCHA housing that a state Department of Health assessment found 83 percent of inspected homes to have at least one severe hazard. Americans spend 90 percent of their time indoors and for NYCHA residents, the percentage of time indoors is likely higher due to factors like crime, limited green space, and the pandemic. The fact that the majority of NYCHA residents are poor people of color, and/or elderly adds a heavy burden of environmental injustice and health inequity. Race, class, and age place NYCHA residents in a triple jeopardy category that already experiences disproportionally worse health outcomes, high environmental exposures, and low access to environmental/health benefits. When taking all of this into account, the degree to which NYCHA conditions amplify health risks for residents is astronomical.
NYCHA was founded in the 1930’s on racist ideologies of segregation and the belief that thriving public housing communities should be reserved mainly for the white working and middle class. Therefore, it is no surprise that as white residents shifted out of NYCHA in the mid 1950’s, so did public funding at every level of government. This defunding accelerated during the Civil Rights era when NYCHA was pressured to integrate housing and accept lower income residents.
In order to save NYCHA, residents need their political voices heard through a justice-centered and resident-informed policy agenda. For example, WE ACT for Environmental Justice has a Healthy Homes Campaign Platform that raises the issues most important to northern Manhattan NYCHA residents.
The reality is that NYCHA residents are essential. Not just as workers who contribute to a functioning society and economy, or as diversity and culture that make the city so iconic, but as human beings. In the words of a Dyckman Houses resident, “you have the right to live as good as the person richer than you. You have the right to live as the people that live on 50th Street, mid-Manhattan. We should not be subjected to rats and roaches because of who we are, or where we live.”
Ashley James is the environmental health coordinator at WE ACT for Environmental Justice.