Red Hook

After months without gas, Red Hook NYCHA residents demand reimbursement

'They give us the hot plate and then they just disappear.'

June 10, 2019 Scott Enman
Sherry Roberson prepares to boil a pot of water on the hot plate NYCHA provided for her. She cooks for a four-person family. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

When roughly 60 families in the Red Hook Houses had their gas turned off on Feb. 13, many believed it would be a temporary issue — nothing more than a minor inconvenience.

But soon days turned to weeks, and weeks turned to months. Though the families had their gas restored late last month, they’re now demanding NYCHA reimburse them for money laid out on meals.

NYCHA passed out a single hot plate for each apartment, but residents said the device was dangerous and inadequate to cook for large families. Those who tried to use more than one blew their apartment’s electric fuse.

People were forced to buy prepared food or pay out of pocket for grills and electric stoves. Easter dinner was ruined, residents said, and the cost of eating in restaurants piled up.

“Basically they tell the residents, ‘You’re going to live under these circumstances and pay your rent, or you’re going to get evicted,'” said Diimond Brown, a resident of the Red Hook Houses East.

Throughout the entire process, communication with NYCHA was minimal. Calls went unanswered. Ticket requests mysteriously vanished.

Roughly 60 families in the Red Hook Houses had their gas turned off on Feb. 13. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
Roughly 60 families in the Red Hook Houses had their gas turned off on Feb. 13. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

“This issue is that the residents are not centered in really being provided with all of the information that they need to understand the totality of the problem,” said Javier Lopez, chief strategy officer of the Red Hook Initiative, a nonprofit community center.

“They’re given a lot of false starts, and they’re not told from soup to nuts what the infrastructural problems are and what is needed to really correct them.”

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The outages eventually hit a seventh building, 39 Centre Mall in the Red Hook Houses East, on April 5. Only after residents sent a letter on April 19 to Kathryn Garcia, interim chair and CEO of NYCHA, did the city agency start posting signs in buildings and hosting weekly meetings to keep residents informed.

As of today, 39 Centre Mall is the only building experiencing a gas outage, according to the agency’s website. NYCHA declined to say when the gas would be restored in the seventh building despite multiple requests for comment.

Sherry Roberson, a resident of Red Hook Houses East, gave the Brooklyn Eagle a tour of her apartment, which revealed an open gas pipe haphazardly covered with tape. She said NYCHA employees left her stove unplugged in the middle of the kitchen after dislodging the gas line.

Residents who’ve suffered outages in any of the building say they’ve been forced to endure financial and health burdens because of the circumstances and are seeking reimbursement for eating out and discounted rent. In addition, they’re demanding better communication from NYCHA and access to restaurant vouchers.

Vanessa McKnight speaks at a tenant meeting at the Red Hook Initiative. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
Vanessa McKnight speaks at a tenant meeting at the Red Hook Initiative. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

It’s not the first time this problem has afflicted the Red Hook Houses. Just last July, more than 470 residents were also without gas. (A total of 64 buildings are currently without gas across the city, according to the housing authority’s website.)

NYCHA did not respond to a request for comment on whether the residents would receive compensation, but they did provide this statement: “While we understand gas service interruptions are inconvenient, we also want to ensure our residents’ safety as we work to restore service as quickly as possible.”

Those initial 60 Red Hook families affected are only the ones that have come to RHI for assistance. “We have no idea how many buildings in the project actually are dealing and suffering with this. They don’t know where to go,” said Vanessa McKnight, a resident who had her gas restored on May 16 after 93 days.

A sign in the lobby of 39 Centre Mall informs residents of gas outages. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
A sign in the lobby of 39 Centre Mall informs residents of gas outages. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

Financial burdens

Residents say the lack of cooking gas has caused financial hardships, and they’re demanding NYCHA provide some form of reimbursement.

Shawn Gettes, who didn’t have gas for 98 days, was forced to buy a countertop electric stove to feed his family since a single hot plate takes hours to cook meals. The food was cold, he said, by the time he prepared all of the dishes.

“I was able to still have somewhat of the same functionality and normalcy of having an oven, but I had to buy that out of my pocket on top of still taking care of the household, paying the bills, making sure the rent is where it needed to be,” Gettes told the Eagle.

“If you’re a working mother and you get off work at 5 p.m. and you’re home by 6, you’re not going to be finished cooking until 9:30 or 10 o’clock,” he added. “The entire process, which is normally 45 minutes, is going to take you a couple of hours, easy.”

Red Hook Houses resident Shawn Gettes was without gas for 98 days. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
Red Hook Houses resident Shawn Gettes was without gas for 98 days. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

Residents also said the hot plates would turn off intermittently and grease would fly everywhere, creating health hazards for young children.

Those who worked full-time jobs said they couldn’t even take advantage of the city’s restaurant voucher system because they couldn’t afford to take a day off from work to travel to the Human Resources Administration.

In addition to financial compensation for food, residents are asking for a 20 percent rent credit, claiming they’re living in partially habitable apartments, and therefore should only be required to pay partial rents.

“NYCHA has the tools in play to do it,” Gettes said. “They’re just not doing it because they’re allocating that money somewhere else, and it ain’t toward bettering the living conditions of the tenants.”

Health impacts

Tenants also claim that the gas outages are having and have had negative impacts on their health.

Because the hot plates cannot cook nutritious meals, residents — many of whom are sick — have been left to eat fried foods.

McKnight called the situation “lackadaisical,” “inhumane” and “disrespectful.”

At press time, Roberson's building at 39 Centre Mall was still without gas since April 5. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
At press time, Roberson’s building at 39 Centre Mall was still without gas since April 5. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

“I eat a lot of fish, a lot of baked foods,” she said. “I have Crohn’s Disease. I’m a cancer survivor. I have severe fibromyalgia. So I have to eat a certain way. Some people don’t even have the money to put out to have an alternative way of cooking.

“What about the senior citizens? How long would it take them to make a meal? A lot of them have diabetes, one had back surgery, one had a heart problem. It’s causing emotional trauma.”

No communication

Residents also say they’ve been kept in the dark throughout the entire outage and are demanding better communication from NYCHA. They specifically want to know why the gas was turned off in the first place and to receive a scope of work and timeline for when gas will be restored at 39 Centre Mall.

“They give us the hot plate and then they just disappear,” Gettes said. “I mean literally disappear. No calls or responses — nothing.”

Tenants also said that when they call the repair number to file complaints or open tickets, NYCHA representatives speak in a condescending, cynical and dismissive manner.

“NYCHA is horribly backwards with everything they do,” Gettes said. “They’ve always been problemsome, but it’s gotten more contrived recently.”

Other residents told the Eagle that their service requests were mysteriously marked as resolved, or they disappeared entirely.

Residents meet weekly at the Red Hook Initiative to discuss issues dealing with their housing. At left, resident Betty Bernhart. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
Residents meet weekly at the Red Hook Initiative to discuss issues dealing with their housing. At left, resident Betty Bernhart. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

“It’s a delay tactic,” McKnight said. “They delete the whole ticket as if you never did it, so now you’ve got to start all over again.”

Betty Bernhart, who had her gas restored on May 28 after 104 days, said she didn’t hear from NYCHA once since Feb. 13. She also told the Eagle that workers falsely claimed to have visited her apartment.

“I have a booklet of just calling in for complaints,” Bernhart said. “When I went to call again to verify that my ticket is still there, they said, ‘No we closed it.’ I said, ‘How did you close the ticket?’ They said, ‘Oh, we came.’ I said, ‘How did you get into my apartment? Do you have my keys?’”

McKnight witnessed similar behavior. She claimed she took off work one day to be home so NYCHA workers could inspect her gas pipe, but rather than knock on the door or ring the bell, they put a “Tenant Not Home” slip under her door while she sat in the living room.

“What we really need is a new way of providing tenants with information, and NYCHA needs to do their due diligence in doing that better,” Lopez of RHI said. “It’s not about slipping paper under their doors.

“It’s about sitting in the lobby of each building and saying this is the problem; this is how we’re trying to solve it, and let tenants respond to that. That type of dialogue needs to start happening. The tenants deserve that. The tenants expect that.”

Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter

Correction: Due to an editing error, the date of the 39 Centre Mall outage was originally misstated. It was April 5, not April 4.

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