By Michael McDowell
As coronavirus sweeps across New York City, disturbing stories have begun to emerge from New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) developments, and some have begun to question whether NYCHA, a beleaguered agency undergoing major structural change, will be able to keep residents—and employees—safe.
NYCHA is home to more than 400,000 New Yorkers—a number approximately equivalent to the population of Miami.
Residents of one development, the WSUR Brownstones, a community made up of several dozen buildings between 89th and 93rd Streets on the Upper West Side, say the agency isn’t following through with promises to clean buildings, many of which house seniors. What’s more, critical information isn’t reaching residents, and maintenance requests have gone unanswered.
Although NYCHA has partnered with outside vendors to “sanitize non-senior developments 3 days per week, and senior buildings 5 days per week,” Marlyn Ramos, who lives in a NYCHA brownstone on 89th Street with her mother, told the Rag that cleaning hasn’t been happening in her building.
“They don’t clean this building, to be honest with you. I’m the one that cleans my floor to the third floor. They don’t clean, they don’t disinfect, and we have senior citizens that are in these buildings,” she said.
Cynthia Tibbs, who was elected president of the WSUR Brownstones tenant association in January, said that communication with NYCHA has grown increasingly difficult as the coronavirus pandemic has worsened, and that NYCHA hasn’t been transparent about employees who may have contracted the virus, putting residents at risk.
“We now have [NYCHA] workers who are out on sick leave. Common sense would say that you put a notice out saying, please look out for the following symptoms, as you might have inadvertently made contact with someone who is affected. Please reach out to your health care provider if you exhibit any of the following symptoms that are associated with coronavirus.”
“They refused to display that information in the lobby,” she said.
Tibbs has been working to get information—and meals—to seniors during the pandemic, which has overwhelmed city services.
“The Brownstones are majority senior, and NYCHA has not done one wellness check. They have done sporadic robocalls, which gives you no live number to call. The majority of seniors do not have computers or cell phones. Many people only have rotary phones, which leaves them vulnerable,” she added.
“If they would send me a list of all the seniors in my development, I would reach out to them personally. But I have never received that list,” she said. “People are going to die in their apartments.”
Tibbs has been unable to reach Brownstones management. Phones ring unanswered, messages are not returned, and emails lead nowhere, she says. But that’s how it’s been for a long time.
The Rag has documented a pattern of neglect at the WSUR Brownstones, many of which are in desperate need of repair.
Mara Ramos lives in one of the brownstones, a pretty building on a shady block. The Ramos’ live on the top floor.
“It says four, but it’s really five, because the first floor is ‘B,’” Mara explained. “My mom uses a wheelchair. She’s starting to deteriorate a little bit. She has Parkinson’s and diabetes. She has slight dementia. She needs a lot of assistance.”
Gloria Ramos has lived at 49 West 89th Street for more than fifty years. In May, she will be 86 years old.
Gloria Ramos has a home health attendant, and services like Meals on Wheels attempt to deliver. But because of a broken buzzer, they cannot get into the building. So Mara must walk up and down the stairs when they arrive to open the door. Despite numerous maintenance requests, this simple repair hasn’t been made.
It’s one of many.
Peeling paint, water soaking through the walls into mailboxes, ceilings and floors that appear ready to collapse, an external door so flimsy it can be jimmied open using a Metro card, mice infestation. The list goes on, and on, and on.
Most recently, Mara told the Rag, a toilet in the basement, which is not inhabited, was overflowing with raw sewage. Even on the top floor, the stench was unbearable, especially for New Yorkers sheltering in place during the pandemic.
“They come, they pump it out, and then it keeps backing up. It’s been going on for months and months,” she sighed. “They finally took the toilet out. They closed it up. We’ll see what happens.”
“They’re just letting these places fall apart,” said Mara. “I send them pictures, I go to the office—it’s one thing after another. What they keep telling me is that it’s because of the budget. That they don’t have the funds. And I think they’re mismanaging the funds, to be honest with you,” she continued.
“It’s time to investigate that damn office.”