Raanan Geberer: Red Hook, Coney and the Housing Authority

November 21, 2012 By Raanan Geberer Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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The news that weeks after Hurricane Sandy, large numbers of apartments in New York City Housing Authority and Red Hook housing projects were still without power doesn’t come as that much of a surprise to me.

A few blocks from where I live are the Chelsea-Elliott Houses, another Housing Authority project. Although Chelsea-Elliott wasn’t hit by the storm, for some reason, one of the buildings once had an emergency boiler van parked outside, with pipes leading into the building. 

It took over a year – I’m not kidding – for the emergency boiler van to disappear, probably meaning that it took that long to either fix or replace the boiler.

More to the point, for about a year, I was a housing assistant (lower-level management employee) at the Edenwald Houses in the Bronx. The place looked terrible – overgrown lawns, elevators often going out of service, maintenance complaints backed up for several weeks.

At the heart of the problem, I felt then and still feel now, was the Authority’s inflexible bureaucracy. When Edenwald was built in 1953, it was assigned 16 maintenance men. I worked there in 1980, and things were falling apart, but the complex was still allocated for only 16 maintenance men. 

It would have been difficult for management to appeal to the “central office” at 250 Broadway for a change in the number of employees – it would have to go through all sorts of budget hearings and likely would have taken several years.

One of my fellow housing assistants, who was much older than I was at the time (I was about 26, she was about 40), said, “When the city decided to build these buildings, many of us hoped that if people didn’t have to fight the rats and the roaches, more of them would be free to try to get ahead.”

If this was the hope, the results were a dismal failure. Not only do you have serious maintenance problems in the project, you have all sorts of “problem families,” people who go for several months without paying rent, and various low-level criminal enterprises. As for rats and roaches, until fairly recently, when you walked past Chelsea-Elliott, you could see the huge rat holes on the lawn, albeit with signs saying that poison had been placed around them.

Another fellow worker told me, “I see these as communities in need of social work – but we’re not social workers!” Indeed, we were basically just rated on our ability to convince people to pay the rent on time, and nothing more.

Based on these observations, I believe that the city’s experiment in public houses, in most cases, has been a failure. It wasn’t always that way – I lived in Marble Hill Houses during my childhood and early adolescence, and it was a very nice place to live.

But that was a long time ago. I can’t tell you what the answer is – I definitely do NOT believe in privatization, not when you’re dealing with poor people who are in need – but I do believe that the Housing Authority’s recent shakeup in management may be a good first step.

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