New York City

NYCHA conducting its own 2020 Census — of rats, mice and roaches

February 18, 2020 Greg B. Smith, THE CITY
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THE CITYSpecial teams of public housing staffers — trained at a “rat academy” — are fanning out across the city in an effort to get an accurate count of NYCHA’s pest population, including rats, mice and roaches.

The count, which began about two weeks ago, marks a major step in a promised campaign to tackle one of the authority’s most vexing problems: vermin infestation. And a census of these unwanted guests can’t come soon enough.

“As far as control, I don’t think it’s controlled yet,” Jason Lugo, 46, a resident of The Bronx’ Patterson Houses said of the complex’s rat problem.

An examination of NYCHA’s pest woes by THE CITY found:

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

• In the last year, the Housing Authority has failed to meet most of its self-imposed deadlines in its quest to eliminate the four- and six-legged critters that plague many of the housing system’s 400,000 tenants.

• A promise to check every development for garbage and dispose of trash every 24 hours has collapsed. A plan for the Department of Sanitation to increase pickup at NYCHA developments remains in limbo.

• An effort to seal off compactor rooms from rats by placing barriers underneath doors proved a debacle: Housing Authority staff improperly installed dozens of the devices, which are designed to block vermin from sneaking under doors into trash compactor rooms.

• Aging compactors inside buildings are sometimes shut down for weeks and even months for repairs — creating a smorgasbord for rats as garbage piles up inside chutes or is dumped outside by frustrated tenants.

Vermin Warfare

The field orders for this war on pests were spelled out in a January 2019 agreement between federal Housing Secretary Ben Carson, NYCHA and Mayor Bill de Blasio.

That unprecedented deal put NYCHA under the watch of a federal monitor and mapped out a strategy to abate lead paint in tens of thousands of apartments, clean up toxic mold, repair busted elevators, fix aging boilers — and get control of the pest population.

The promises were ambitious: By Jan. 31, 2022, the agreement states, NYCHA “shall achieve” a 50% reduction of its rat population and 40% reduction in mice and roaches system-wide.

The battle plan requires NYCHA to establish the scope of the problem by inspecting a “statistically representative random sample” of its 320 developments across the five boroughs.

A rat scurries through the Washington Houses in East Harlem, July 22, 2019. Photo: Gabriel Sandoval/THE CITY

On Friday, Housing Authority spokesperson Barbara Brancaccio said that by July, rodent and bug counting teams intend to check at least 8,775 apartments in 225 buildings across 75 developments.

To do that, they’ll need to inspect at least 70 units per day, every workday, not including holidays and weekends.

Brancaccio said with 13 inspectors assigned exclusively to the pest count, each has so far averaged eight apartments per day. That comes out to 104 daily, “so we are on schedule,” she said.

On Pest Patrol

The count began on Feb. 4 in the South Bronx, covering a random sampling of 563 units at sites that included the Forest Houses, Morris Houses and Mott Haven Houses, Brancaccio said. Next up: The rodent squad will hit several Brooklyn developments, including the Cypress Hills Houses, Marcus Garvey Houses and Seth Low Houses.

The HUD agreement states that once the count is complete, NYCHA is supposed to post on its website quarterly “reliable estimates” of infestation, listed by “pest type,” for each of the authority’s developments.

NYCHA said the baseline used to measure success against will include the random sampling and data on pest-related work orders. NYCHA hired a consultant with a PhD in entomology (the study of insects) to create estimates based on visual observations.

Counting every rat, mouse and roach would appear to be a daunting endeavor. To accomplish this difficult task, NYCHA staff began training in December, with exterminators taking classes at what Brancaccio called a “rat academy.” More than 1,000 property-level staff will participate in a pest-control webinar and take a test that requires they answer at least 65% of the questions correctly, she said.

Rat Door Problems

Meanwhile, NYCHA struggles to confront the conditions that attract pests — starting with trying to keep them out of trash compactor rooms with strips of metal known as “sweeps” attached to the bottom of doors.

In a plan worked out with Bart Schwartz, the federal monitor appointed in the HUD deal, NYCHA was supposed to install 8,000 door sweeps by this March 31. During December inspections, however, the monitor’s investigators found serious issues with NYCHA’s claims about its progress.

A spotcheck of 98 doors at four developments found only 17 sweeps were put in correctly, according to a monitor report. In a handful of cases, no sweep had been installed, contrary to NYCHA’s claims.

The monitor also found Housing Authority vendors were “improperly baiting for rats on NYCHA exterior grounds.” This is a violation of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations and state laws, and “is unsafe to humans and ineffective in exterminating rats,” the monitor wrote.

Additional challenges stem from how often garbage gets picked up at the housing developments. Prolonged delays lead residents to dump refuse on sidewalks as trash chutes and outside containers overflow.

In the January 2019 agreement, NYCHA promised that within eight months it would begin inspecting all developments every 24 hours, and dispose of or properly contain all trash found.

The agency missed its deadline because, officials said, they didn’t have staff at developments seven days a week and the Department of Sanitation doesn’t pick up trash every day.

“We have a policy that mandates waste be collected by our caretakers at least once per day. Still, we’ve found that we need more caretaker staff,” Brancaccio said.

In October, NYCHA officials said they were talking with Sanitation about increasing trash pickup to three days a week. In his monitor report filed two weeks ago, Schwartz said NYCHA was looking into seven-days-a-week pickup.

“We are working to do a better job of storing our waste and simultaneously working with [Sanitation] to figure out if more frequent waste removal is possible,” Brancaccio stated.

Resilient Rodents Dig In

As THE CITY documented last summer, NYCHA blew an Aug. 31 deadline to clean up all apartments that had filed two or more vermin complaints within the prior year.

At the time, NYCHA determined there were 18,225 such apartments tagged for relief, but on Friday Brancaccio said that number was “speculative.” Working with the monitor and HUD, NYCHA determined the new number is 7,408.

Either way, as of last week only 2,516 had been inspected and treated, Brancaccio said. NYCHA hopes to address the rest by mid-April, and begin inspecting neighboring apartments.

At the 70-year-old Patterson Houses in the South Bronx, the rat battle is endless. Tenants recently described a repeating scenario: NYCHA pulls up trees and pours concrete slabs over rat burrows. Then the critters simply scamper over to another spot and dig new ones.

Xiomara Pavon, 56, who’s lived in Patterson since 1992, said rodents used to frolic outside her Third Avenue building’s front door. But after NYCHA ripped up the trees and poured cement there, the rats relocated to holes in the grassy areas and a fenced-off section where a wheelchair ramp was recently installed.

“They run and they hide, go back to the other side,” she said.

Pavon also noted tenants couldn’t use the trash chute in her building for two months, which forced them to drag bags down to the first floor and deposit the refuse outdoors. Last week, the compactor in another Patterson building was out of service, due to a flood in the basement.

In fact, building compactors in two more Patterson buildings have been non-functioning for months — one since Nov. 6, and another since Aug. 12.

A review of records shows there were 26 compactors out of service at 20 separate developments across the city this past week — including 16 that have been useless for at least three months. A compactor in Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn has been out since May.

Additional reporting by Gabriel Sandoval. 

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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