A newly formed committee of NYCHA residents is advising Comptroller Brad Lander as he prepares to audit the public housing authority, with the task force first targeting the most common complaints made by peers. Sanitation and repair orders being closed without repairs topped the list.

Adi Talwar

NYCHA’s Wickoff Gardens.

A newly formed committee of NYCHA residents is advising Comptroller Brad Lander as he prepares to audit the public housing authority, with the task force first targeting the most common complaints made by peers.

The 21-member committee met for the first time Dec. 6 to review the results of a recent survey of 795 tenants from 132 developments that Lander said will inform the direction of his investigations. Respondents were asked to name the biggest challenges they experience at their campuses, with sanitation ranked the top or second biggest concern among 65 percent of participants. Safety and “repair tickets being closed before repairs” were the next most common responses, according to survey results shared with City Limits.

Karim Couser, a resident of the Johnson Houses in East Harlem, said the complaints resonated with him and many other committee members facing those very problems at their homes. Couser, 25, said the entrance to his building has a broken lock, mirroring the results of a September review by Lander’s office, which found that 40 percent of entrance doors had broken locks across 262 buildings.

“They applied to all of us across the board,” he said. “The lobby doors aren’t locked.” He said many residents on the committee also complained about shoddy work by NYCHA contractors.

“They’ll do a job like painting or cleaning and they don’t do a good job and there’s no follow up or accountability so tenants have to deal with it,” he said. “What is happening to the money [NYCHA is] spending.”

NYCHA estimates that it needs at least $40 billion to complete capital repairs across its public housing campuses, which are home to about 400,000 New Yorkers named on leases, with tens of thousands more also living in the apartments.

Elizabeth Latham, a lifelong resident of East Harlem’s Jefferson Houses, said she agreed to join the committee after the comptroller’s office asked her to complete the survey. Latham, 37, said she wanted to speak up for her neighbors and provide on-the-ground perspective to contextualize data that comes out of any upcoming audits. 

“I want to give a voice to the community,” said Latham, adding that she recently earned her master’s degree in public administration and policy thanks to the support of her neighbors. “It was a real community effort. From their words of encouragement, to opening the front door to make sure I got my books delivered.”

She said she also wants to present a more nuanced view of NYCHA than the negative portrayals typical in most media. “Media has a big role to play in what people think, when they focus on crime, gun violence, drugs,” she said. “But there is a big, real community here.”

The Comptroller’s Office is required to audit spending by every city agency every four years, but NYCHA has faced more frequent scrutiny as a result of deep financial deficits, mismanagement and dangerous conditions, including toxic lead paint in apartments where young children live. Lander said he would prioritize the issues raised by survey respondents and committee members in his office’s upcoming audits.

“NYCHA residents are the experts on what is broken in our public housing authority, and they  must be part of the solutions,” he said. “By partnering directly with residents, our resident-powered audits will aim to move the needle forward on the much-needed repairs, resources, services, investments, and quality of life issues that matter most to the people who call NYCHA home.”

A NYCHA spokesperson said the agency will collaborate with Lander’s office to improve conditions under the terms of the NYCHA Transformation Plan, created in 2021. “Improving our ability to successfully deliver key services for our residents has been a key focus of NYCHA’s Transformation Plan,” the spokesperson said.

Mayor Eric Adams has pledged to streamline repairs for NYCHA tenants and legislation signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul in July will create a searchable online database of work tickets, while forcing city agencies to make NYCHA’s housing code violations public.

Many of the city’s public housing complexes are also facing momentous shifts and choices over enrolling in systems of private management through the Rental Assistance Demonstration-Permanent Affordability Commitment Together (RAD-PACT) program or through the newly created Preservation Trust, which each change the source of funding for apartments.

Meanwhile, the authority said it may fall further behind on repairs due to $440 million in unpaid rent during the pandemic, The City reported last month.

NYCHA’s problems and progress were detailed in a report issued in November by the federal monitor overseeing the authority under the terms of a 2019 agreement with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The agreement, which stemmed from revelations that management lied about unsafe conditions, including lead paint, in thousands of apartments,   sets forth specific timelines for responding to problems and making repairs, including to boilers and elevators.

The report from the federal monitor, Barry Schwartz, found the authority has made “major strides” in data collection to better address problems. Schwartz based the report on a review of a database of roughly 33.7 million open and closed work orders as well as intensive field inspections to determine whether repairs are actually completed.

Despite progress on data collection and efficiency, the agency has had mixed results when it comes to keeping pace with several agreement goals that have a direct impact on tenants’ daily lives, especially related to heating and elevators.

“On the one hand, NYCHA has met its Agreement obligation to replace at least 70 heating systems by the end of 2022, and will likely complete 90 by the end of the year,” the report found. “On the other hand, NYCHA’s progress in the delivery of new elevators is dire.”

Last year, NYCHA experienced more and longer unplanned heat outages, typically due to boiler breakdowns and lack of winter preparation. There were 564 heat outages in the 2021-2022 heat season, which lasts from October to May, compared to 464 in 2020-21.

The HUD agreement mandates that NYCHA restore heat to units affected by an outage or shortage within an average of 12 hours, restore heat to 85 percent of affected units within 24 hours and investigate the root causes of heat outages that exceed 12 hours.

The average outage lasted about 9 hours, an hour and a half more than the previous heat season. The number of unplanned outages lasting more than 12 hours doubled from 47 in 2020-2021 to 97 in 2021-2022. The report found that NYCHA had made “significant upgrades” to its heating systems.

Meanwhile, though the monitor found that elevator performance has gradually improved since the agreement took effect in February 2019, outages remain pervasive. The authority has replaced few of its elevators as per the terms of the agreement.

From Jan. 1 to Sept. 30 of this year, NYCHA buildings had 26,954 elevator outages—down from 31,437 in the same period in 2021. The elevators remained out of service for an average of about 11 hours, down slightly from the previous year, but a major problem for tenants, especially mobility impaired individuals, living in the affected buildings.

The report cited “a lack of thorough and effective preventive maintenance” as the root cause of the outages. NYCHA was supposed to replace 108 elevators by the end of this year. So far, it has replaced just six.

In a statement accompanying the report, Schwartz said that while NYCHA is making “ongoing progress, the agency still has a long way to go.”