Riis residents who have spoken with City Limits since the Sept. 2 incident, in which they were incorrectly told their taps may be contaminated, have described spending hundreds of dollars on prepared food and using food stamps to purchase packaged water. Several said they visited their doctors to undergo blood testing, while parents said they have continued to use bottled water to bathe their babies and young children.
In the aftermath of botched water testing and a false arsenic alert, NYCHA leaders pledged Friday to give $200 to every household in the Jacob Riis Houses—a gesture that residents and elected officials say may be too little, too late.
Testifying before the City Council Friday, NYCHA officials briefly described the $200 reimbursements to cover the cost of bottled water, food and medical exams that Riis tenants purchased after the agency warned them Sept. 2 not to drink or cook with water from their taps.
A week later, the laboratory subcontracted to test the water—in violation of a contract mandating that labs have New York State certification, NYCHA leaders said—revealed that it had inadvertently introduced the arsenic into the sample, triggering the chaos and confusion.
NYCHA’s new interim Commissioner, Lisa Bova Hiatt, apologized for the scare, and the slow response to tenants’ complaints of cloudy water during prepared remarks to the Council.
“I don’t want to leave the Council with the impression that I think NYCHA did everything right. We did not,” Bova Hiatt said. “We already know that efforts to solve the problem took too long.”
A spokesperson for NYCHA said the agency will distribute checks to tenants in 1,700 apartments in the sprawling East Village housing complex, likely within the next two weeks. The checks will be provided one per household, rather than to all 3,700 residents living in the complex.
But Janay Spencer, a Riis Houses resident and member of the organization Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES) who attended the hearing, estimated that she and her family had spent $1,000 on food, water and laundry over the past three weeks. GOLES members successfully advocated for Friday’s hearing to be held in the Council chambers after they were locked out of the original cramped meeting room inside 250 Broadway, where NYCHA and councilmembers keep offices.
“$200 for what?” Spencer said. “That’s way under the cost a lot of families and residents have come out of pocket because of the conditions due to the contamination. There’s much more that needs to be done.”
Spencer has joined a class action lawsuit seeking $10 million in damages from the public housing agency. The tenants’ attorney, Sanford Rubenstein, sat in the front row of the oversight hearing Friday. NYCHA also faces an ongoing investigation by a federal monitor in coordination with the city’s Department of Investigations.
Brooklyn Councilmember Darlene Mealy, whose district includes more NYCHA complexes than any other, also said the agency needed to increase the reimbursements.
“That’s nothing,” Mealy told City Limits outside the Council chambers. “It’s embarrassing and a slap in the face.”
Riis residents who have spoken with City Limits since the Sept. 2 arsenic scare have described spending hundreds of dollars on prepared food and using food stamps to purchase packaged water after learning that their taps may be contaminated. Several said they visited their doctors to undergo blood testing, while parents said they have continued to use bottled water to bathe their babies and young children, despite officials’ pledges that the tap water was always safe.
NYCHA and other agencies did provide tons of water to residents between Sept. 2 to 11. City workers distributed 380,000 bottles and cans totaling 46,000 gallons to residents and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) also set up water stations at two sites, NYCHA said.
Despite the city’s assurances—which included Mayor Eric Adams downing a glass of Riis tap water on camera—tenants say they’re still wary.
Mando Martinez, a lifelong Riis Houses resident who earlier this month told City Limits he was rationing water provided by the city, said the $200 check was a good start, but would have an uneven impact for people who live alone versus families.
“$200 is $200. It’s something,” Martinez said. “Maybe they shouldn’t make people pay rent.”
But perhaps no amount of money or bottled water will immediately restore tenants’ confidence in their taps.
“They tell you that you can’t drink the water, you can’t cook with the water. And some people didn’t even want to bathe with the water because they were scared,” said Tenant Association President Daphne Williams in testimony. “Confusion is something that someone don’t want to go through because you don’t know whether to go to the right or to the left. And who’s lying and who’s not.”
At the contentious hearing Friday, Councilmembers took aim at NYCHA’s glacial response to complaints of cloudy water, concentrated in one of the Riis Houses buildings, known as Building 11. Bova-Hiatt said the housing agency received the first of 93 complaints about cloudy tap water on May 1 but did not order the first test until Aug. 13. NYCHA also repaired a broken water pump in the massive tank atop Building 11 this summer.
Nearly three weeks passed before the testing company, LiquiTech, finally returned the results of the exam conducted by Environmental Monitoring and Technologies Inc. (EMT), a company that is not certified by New York state or city agencies, Bova-Hiatt said. After the results revealed traces of arsenic, the DEP recommended that NYCHA urge tenants to stop drinking or cooking with the water on Sept. 2 while the agencies conducted additional testing.
Dozens of follow up tests came back clean for arsenic and EMT confirmed on Sept. 9 that they had introduced the arsenic into the sample by mistake. A spokesperson for Mayor Eric Adams issued a statement that day saying that the city “intends to pursue all available legal options on behalf of the residents of Riis Houses.”
Neither EMT nor LiquiTech have responded to questions about their role in the screw-up or any plans for reimbursing residents.
Councilmember Carlina Rivera would not let NYCHA off the hook in spite of the private companies’ failures, however.
“You realize when you trace it back, it comes back to you,” she said.
In her testimony, Bova-Hiatt outlined “four key matters” that NYCHA has targeted for improvement, including better oversight of vendors and insisting that water samples are tested only by state-certified companies. She also said NYCHA needed to improve communication with tenants and more quickly identify mechanical system failures, as in the case of the Building 11 roof tank.
The housing agency will establish clear protocols for testing after receiving reports of cloudy water, said NYCHA Chief Operating Officer Eva Trimble.
“[NYCHA] actually did not yet have a threshold for the number of complaints that would trigger water testing in its portfolio of over 270 developments,” Trimble said. “We are open to recommendations on how we might use complaints and related data effectively.”
Throughout the hearing, councilmembers and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, citing a report his office produced on poor conditions in NYCHA campuses across the five boroughs, also criticized former NYCHA CEO Gregory Russ for skipping the hearing a week after stepping down from his post. Russ remains NYCHA chair and commutes to the city from Minnesota, but Bova-Hiatt said she did not know where he was Friday.
“Not having the former CEO but still current chair of NYCHA, Mr. Gregory Russ, testify here today is a huge disservice not only to the institution, but to the residents,” said Councilmember Alexa Aviles, the chair of the public housing committee. “Electing to not have him participate was a very poor decision and further validates residents’ suspicion of the agency and this continued scrutiny of accountability.”
“NYCHA indeed seems to be its own worst enemy,” Aviles added.