|Original buildings in Public housing in New York. | Getty Images|
NEW YORK CITY—
The coronavirus preys on vulnerabilities, and that has made New York City's public housing system and its tenants unfortunate targets.
The results have been deadly.
As the virus sweeps through the roughly 174,000 apartments overseen by the New York City Housing Authority, it is threatening the economic picture of an agency just starting to find its fiscal footing and exacerbating inequalities that have long plagued low-income communities. Many NYCHA tenants have pre-existing medical conditions. Many are seniors or frontline workers who risk their health while on the job and then come back to apartments cramped with family members sheltering in place.
Residents and officials interviewed by POLITICO said that with health care systems overwhelmed, tenants are dying in their homes every day. Because the city has not been testing the deceased for Covid-19, the cause of each particular case is unclear. But the increased count is palpable in the data.
“So many people have died this week,” said Lisa Kenner, resident association president at Van Dyke Houses in Brooklyn. “It’s enough.”
Nearby Woodson Houses has lost six seniors. A few blocks away at Glenmore Plaza, the former resident association president died in her apartment last Friday morning. She was not taken away until the next day, according to Kenner.
She said 10 residents have died in their apartments at Van Dyke. In one case, the bodies of a mother and son were discovered in their unit only after the smell prompted neighbors to call city officials. Eventually, the National Guard came to remove the bodies, and then cleaning crews passed through the home. But the odor of death lingered.
“NYCHA has always struggled,” said City Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel, chair of the Council’s public housing committee, who represents Kenner's district. “Unfortunately because of this crisis, they are struggling even more.”
New Yorkers have been dying in their homes at around 10 times the usual rate, according to city statistics. Several officials have posited that the majority of these cases stem from low-income residents who cannot afford access to the traditional health care system or are frightened to seek assistance because of their immigration status.
"Residents are experiencing challenges, suffering, hardship, fortitude and survival, along with the entire community," NYCHA spokesperson Barbara Brancaccio said in a statement. "We are heartbroken to hear that we have lost members of our NYCHA family."
Many public housing tenants lack a primary care physician and typically use the emergency room as a first stop for health care. Hospital admissions, however, have been focused on sparing beds for the gravely ill. And while the mayor has said that anyone can call 311 and get connected with a doctor, Ampry-Samuel said the makeshift system is not reaching enough of the city’s vulnerable population and was not designed with them in mind.
“We could have prevented some of these deaths happening in the home if our leaders in the executive offices were talking directly with local elected officials,” she said.
The medical issues are being compounded by economic woes now rippling through every level of the public housing organization.
More than 45 percent of NYCHA families are working. But as unemployment claims reach staggering levels, officials expect public housing tenants to be hit hard. Not only will that strain household finances, but it will further imperil the economic standing of an agency already hollowed out by decades of underinvestment.
Around half of NYCHA’s annual operating costs are covered by $1 billion in rent received from tenants, who use federal vouchers to supplement their payments.
“If folks are out of work and stay out of work, we will need more voucher money and more operating subsidy,” NYCHA Chair Gregory Russ said in an interview.
NYCHA has received $137 million in operating money from the latest federal appropriations bill, enough to cover short-term costs, Russ said. But as the broader economic picture continues to sour, the odds grow that more cash will be needed — especially because several revenue-raising strategies the de Blasio administration was banking on have also been scrambled by Covid-19.
March was supposed to be a pivotal month.
A working group that was formed to hash out controversial plans for market-rate apartments and private management at Fulton Houses in Chelsea was set to unveil its recommendations, which would then set the benchmark for similar endeavors down the road. NYCHA hopes that various combinations of infill development and outside management contracts would cover around $15 billion worth of capital repairs across its entire portfolio. Both initiatives have prompted opposition from some elected officials and tenants. And the concept of new development has proven especially caustic.
Though consensus was far from guaranteed, city leaders and interested parties were leaning heavily toward scrapping the most hot-button issue at Fulton Houses: tearing down two existing public housing buildings. The group had instead turned its focus toward alternative development scenarios that would slot new buildings into existing open spaces elsewhere on the grounds, according to several people with knowledge of the meetings. But the sessions have stopped. And it is unclear when and if the plan will move forward.
Russ was also on the verge of unveiling a sweeping capital plan that had been in the works since last year. The agency planned to outline roughly $40 billion in repairs that, if funded, would bring buildings up to a minimum state of repair and allow the authority to finally emerge from crisis mode and start operating more akin to a normal landlord. The release of the plan has been tabled for now, though officials may break it out if a federal infrastructure bill materializes in Washington.
“If they are going to go that route, we have a program of scale and size that would be ideal," Russ said. "And we would make our voice heard."
NYCHA officials said recently they were on track to meet their goal of enrolling 62,000 apartments into the federal Rental Assistance Demonstration program, an initiative that transfers management of certain complexes to private developers who then make capital repairs. New projects requiring public hearings, however, have been put on hold as the authority more generally pares back its operations in response to Covid-19.
Development staff are cleaning buildings, performing emergency repairs and doing critical work related to lead and mold, the authority said. But with the onset of the coronavirus, workers have stopped doing annual inspections of properties required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the authority is limiting lead inspections to the universe of properties already known to have both lead paint and children under six years of age. As many tenant interactions as possible are being conducted remotely.
That has thrown the city out of compliance with a federal settlement agreement. For the time being, NYCHA is working with Bart Schwartz, the federal monitor, on an interim agreement that will prioritize what can be done until full operations resume and will, for example, likely delay when the authority must submit a reorganization plan.
NYCHA has also hired several outside contractors to clean and disinfect buildings, and has been partnering with food banks to distribute meals at pop-up events. In some cases, though, tenants have had to take the lead.
Back in Brooklyn's Van Dyke Houses, Kenner said she had to turn to the nonprofit City Harvest to deliver meals to seniors after an order placed through the city for Meals on Wheels delivery never arrived — a problem affecting elderly residents across the city. And she tapped into her federal money for the resident association to purchase 2,000 masks — something NYCHA has encouraged — after seeing seniors and other residents leaving their apartments without protective equipment to get food and medicine. Until this week, frontline caretakers and maintenance staff at her complex were similarly working without protective gear.
She said that NYCHA has been effective at communicating with residents about social distancing and what to do if they cannot pay rent. But as the burdens pile up, her neighbors are struggling.
“It’s really getting to people mentally,” she said