By Michael McDowell
A federal official tasked with helping fix New York’s public housing system got an up-close view of some of the struggles that residents deal with on a regular basis on Tuesday when she was briefly stuck in an elevator. But the incident, like the Trump administration’s plans to overhaul housing, was not in the end so cut and dry.
A press conference and tour of the Douglass Houses between 100th and 104th Streets was interrupted when the elevator suddenly stopped while carrying several high-profile passengers: Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Regional Director Lynne Patton, New York State Senator Brian Benjamin, PIX11 reporter Monica Morales, Douglass Houses tenant president Carmen Quinones, and others. They were quickly rescued by firefighters, who arrived within minutes.
While the incident would seem like a perfect example of NYCHA’s poor maintenance record — an issue that Patton has repeatedly discussed — a NYCHA spokesperson later said that someone in the elevator accidentally hit an alarm button, causing the elevator to stop.
Greg Smith, a reporter who has uncovered many problems at NYCHA, including the agency’s lax attitude toward lead paint poisoning, likened it to a PR stunt gone awry.
HUD official on the taxpayer clock drags TV crews around public housing in PR stunt, overstuffs elevator, somebody hits the alarm with an elbow = FDNY crew tied up for an hour. https://t.co/awEAXCIpo6
— GregBSmith (@Gregbsmithnyc) February 19, 2019
Others have been more supportive of her decision to get a first-hand look at NYCHA.
Regardless of the circumstances behind this elevator problem, though, maintenance at the Douglass Houses is a recurring problem, several residents told the Rag this week.
Unreliable and slow elevators can grind life at the development to a halt. Most of the buildings in Douglass, a sprawling complex of 19 buildings situated between 100th and 104th Streets, have nearly 20 floors.
“It’s the children and the seniors that are suffering in these buildings, and no one is paying attention,” said Quinones, who held a press conference with Patton in the lobby of 840 Columbus Avenue prior to a tour of several apartments. “We have three maintenance workers. It’s impossible to [take care of] 19 buildings with three maintenance workers,” she continued.
Almost 4,000 Upper West Siders live in Douglass Houses, according to Quinones.
“It’s not about the politics, it’s about the people,” Patton affirmed. “I’m moving in, I’m advocating for more funding, I’m advocating for more attention…the president had heard about my stay from his kids, who are some of my closest friends, and quite frankly, he’s furious. He might be president, but he’s a New Yorker first,” she said.
Patton moved into Douglass earlier this week, as part of a temporary tenancy in NYCHA. She aims to better understand the challenges facing residents, and to develop an intimate understanding of how best to rehabilitate NYCHA.
“NYCHA was not this way, when [Trump] was [in New York]…there has been federal divestment since 2001, but that alone does not create the conditions that we’re in,” Patton noted.
Patton will present her findings and recommendations directly to HUD Secretary Ben Carson and President Trump, and hopes to arrange a meeting between herself, Quinones, and the president this week.
Quinones has previously asked how the money the federal government sends NYCHA is being spent. Patton too wants answers. Where’s the money?
“[The president] would like to know where the $30 million that HUD gives every week for repairs alone [is going]…[and] the federal monitor already has a team of forensic accountants who are going to come in and find out where NYCHA is spending the majority of [the] money,” Patton said, to murmurs of approval.
The federal monitor, who will oversee NYCHA, has not yet been named.
Meanwhile, Sen. Benjamin is curious how NYCHA has determined the dollar amount it will spend renovating individual units.
“I used to be an affordable housing developer before becoming a senator, I know how much it costs to do rehab work, I’ve done it myself personally. $180,000-185,000 per unit? If we spent that kind of money on NYCHA, this would look like the Ritz-Carlton.” he said.
That figure appears in a 2018 Citizens Budget Commission report cataloguing NYCHA’s capital needs.
The tour began, and the Rag visited a modest but clean apartment on a high floor. A television competed with the winter sunshine in a small living room, which featured a large armchair. Nearby, in a narrow kitchen, a few clean dishes were stacked next to the sink.
Imagine inviting dozens of strangers into your apartment, cameras in tow, but not for a celebration or social gathering. These strangers will instead inspect your home in order to document the frustrations of your everyday life.
The interior hallways of Douglass Houses feel somewhat similar to a public school, in appearance. The lighting is dim, and the air quality is not good. Quinones attributes serious medical conditions to the air she has breathed over decades spent in Douglass.
The Rag squeezed into a packed elevator, which stopped on nearly every floor as it descended to the lobby. On many of the higher floors, an elderly person or person in a wheelchair, seeking to go about his or her day, was unable to do so, due to the commotion.
According to residents, there are often problems with the elevators, but the fire department is responsive. “They rock—they come,” a woman said, nodding her head.
Annette, who lives in Canarsie, brought her grandson, who lives in the Bronx. “I have him out here learning how to advocate,” she told the Rag.
What do Douglass residents think?
“Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, these are human conditions,” said Johnathan Newkirk.
Does he believe maintenance and repairs will be made?
“It’s because you all are here. As soon as the cameras leave, it goes back to normal,” he shook his head.
What did residents have to say, after the cameras moved on? The Rag hung around.
“I’m really concerned about what’s going on here. We really do have a lot of problems [at Douglass], which we need a lot of help with,” said Soraya Vazquez, a resident. Her home health aide stood off to the side, and declined to be interviewed. Ms. Vazquez uses a wheelchair.
“We pay rent here, and we want to live decently,” she said. “If you have somewhere to live, be grateful for it.”
Younger residents weren’t exactly impressed. At some point, Congressman Adriano Espaillat, who represents New York’s 13th District, had appeared.
“We have politicians come here 24/7…but to us [as residents], you just go about your regular life,” said Tawan Wade. He’s aware of and sympathetic to the political and budgetary realities the city faces.
Nia, who grew up in Douglass, believes recent cosmetic renovations are the result of Patton’s tenancy.
“The basketball court, they just repainted it. They just started fixing the actual parks. I’m not really surprised that all of the changes are happening. After I heard about [Patton] coming to different developments, it’s pretty obvious they’re trying to make renovations to make it seem [nicer].”
However, Nia is happy in Douglass, and highlighted the strong community. Douglass is home.
“You’re really close with everybody, I have a lot of friends that I’ve known for years just living here,” she said.
“Honestly, this is a great place to live. This is a perfect neighborhood.”