Concerns ranged from the functionality of security cameras at developments to broken locks and entryway doors, as well as how elevator breakdowns impact tenants with mobility issues.

Adi Talwar

NYCHA’s records indicate that one of the two elevators at 175 Alexander Avenue at the Mitchel Houses has been undergoing repairs since February 2023.

Across the city’s public housing system, 77,074 residents are aged 62 or older—making up 25 percent of the NYCHA population, according to the housing authority.

The City Council’s committees on Public Housing and Aging joined together Thursday for a combined hearing about the safety of NYCHA tenants, particularly its senior residents. Concerns ranged from the functionality of security cameras at developments to broken locks and entryway doors, as well as how elevator breakdowns impact tenants with mobility issues.

“We’re going to have a 40 percent increase in older adults in New York City specifically over the next 15 years,” Councilmember Crystal Hudson, chair of the Aging Committee, said in an exchange with NYCHA officials. “I’m wondering if you as a landlord are looking at your portfolio of senior-only buildings and developments and taking into consideration the increase in the older adult population?”

“We’re not doing any current population trending analysis,” responded Eva Trimble, NYCHA’s chief operating officer.

NYCHA currently has 55 seniors-only buildings*, which have additional security measures, including the presence of a security guard for a minimum of eight hours a day. A program called Elderly Safe-At-Home also offers safety workshops at 20 developments, led by law enforcement and social services organizations.

But concerns persist across those buildings and NYCHA’s portfolio more generally, attendees at Thursday’s hearing testified. In 2022, New York City Comptroller Brad Lander conducted  a resident-led audit that found 40.1 percent of NYCHA entrance doors had broken locks. Trimble said Thursday that 52 developments currently lack security cameras.

In a May report on safety and security, NYCHA Federal Monitor Bart Schwartz said that over the last four years the monitorship has been in place, “the sentiment of most residents we speak with is that these conditions have gotten worse at many developments.”

Julie Sharpton, the tenant association president of Brooklyn’s Whitman Houses, said her development has broken doors and locks which have led to vandalism of mailboxes and non-residents occupying stairwells.

“It makes our residents, especially our senior residents, feel very unsafe,” Sharpton testified. “They’re afraid to go to their appointments because they have to step over or encounter people who don’t live in our buildings.”

Poor lighting is another concern for tenants, she said, especially with the sun setting earlier, making residents feel uneasy about running out for groceries.

“I won’t say that NYCHA hasn’t been responsive but there needs to be some system put in place so that we’re not dealing with the same issues repetitively when it comes to doors not locking,” said Sharpton.

Trimble said NYCHA makes weekly assessments of doors, stairways and rooftops to scope out  potential problems. For 2023, their assessment team has made 114 such inspections.

Additionally, she said, “Our caretakers every morning do their rounds across the buildings,” to check for broken doors. “They’re supposed to report all of that to their property management supervisors by 10 a.m. and those managers would take appropriate actions from there,” she said.

Developments converted to the Permanent Affordability Commitment Together (PACT) program, an initiative which welcomes a third-party developer to manage properties, are not part of the same walkthrough inspection process.

But Trimble said that one of the benefits of the PACT program—which shifts developments from federal Section 9 to the more lucrative Section 8 housing program—is that it has funding to provide “more substantial” security than NYCHA can.

But Councilmember Gale Brewer, who has Wise Towers, a PACT development, in her district, said tenants there have gotten locked out of their apartments because of key fob malfunctions.

“People are scared to go out at night because their key won’t work for their apartment,” Brewer said. “The seniors hate them.”

Trimble replied that she believes all of those key fob issues are now solved. NYCHA has just over 9,500 open work orders for doors, she added. Fully broken doors, broken handles and broken locks are among the outstanding issues.

“This is definitely one of our biggest challenges because it changes day to day,” Trimble said, adding that NYCHA’s most recent Physical Needs Assessment included $137 million in repairs “just for doors, not any other type of security enhancement.”

Malfunctioning elevators are another persistent issue. The same assessment lists $3.21 billion in needed elevator repair work across NYCHA in the next five years, and the system saw thousands of outages per month between January and April of this year, though that was an improvement from the year prior.

At Thursday’s hearing, Councilmember Hudson questioned the protocols for tenants who have mobility limitations in the event of an elevator outage, including a volunteer-run “stair climber” service.

If an elevator has been, or is expected to be, out of service for more than four hours, a stair climber machine is put in place to help tenants get to and from their homes, and NYCHA staff volunteers carry residents’ wheelchairs or walkers up or down the stairs.

“It’s not actually part of their job description but it’s something that we understand as an important service,” Trimble said, adding that the volunteers are trained in how to use the machines.

Iziah Thompson, a senior policy analyst at Community Service Society (a City Limits’ funder) was the last to testify during the joint Council hearing. He pointed to a survey the organization conducted last year, which found NYCHA residents were more likely to have issues with their front doors, buzzers and intercoms than tenants in other types of housing.

“Public housing residents were 2.5 times more likely than rent regulated households to have issues with exterior doors, more than four times more likely than market rate households and 12 times more likely than homeowners,” Thompson said. “We will do the survey again this year and hopefully this attention will show different results.”

This story was produced as part of Columbia University’s 2023 Age Boom Academy.

*Correction: NYCHA has 55 senior-only buildings, not 65. City Limits regrets the error.

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