Brooklyn Boro

De Blasio promised $2.2B for public housing to settle a federal lawsuit. Tenants are still waiting.

Following a damning Justice Department complaint documenting years of lead paint and other coverups, improvements remain far off track, a report NYCHA refused to release shows.

April 18, 2022 Greg B. Smith, THE CITY
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Logo for THE CITYThis article was originally published on by THE CITY.

In June 2018, when federal prosecutors accused the city Housing Authority of covering up years of scandalous conditions in public housing, Mayor Bill de Blasio stepped up and promised a big pot of city money to NYCHA for property upgrades — an unprecedented $2.2 billion over 10 years.

Nearly four years later, at the Atlantic Terminal development in Brooklyn, where the phrase “A Wonderful Community” is stenciled on the welcome sign, the tenants are still waiting.

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Atlantic Terminal was one of eight high-rise developments where NYCHA planned to use some of de Blasio’s promised windfall to address chronic problems with elevators. To date, work has yet to begin and the elevators remain a persistent nightmare, particularly for the seniors who live there.

Over the last two years, the 31-story development has endured 134 elevator outages, records show. Last week one of the development’s three lifts were out of service for 75 hours before it was restored. On Tuesday an elevator went out and was still inoperative Wednesday when a reporter for THE CITY stopped by.

Several tenants interviewed by THE CITY used the same term when asked how often they experienced elevator problems: “Constantly.”

An internal NYCHA document obtained by THE CITY shows that as of December, nearly four years after de Blasio made his initial $2 billion commitment, barely any of the money has resulted in actual building improvements.

To date, 92% of 336 projects NYCHA intended to tackle with de Blasio’s pledged aid have yet to even begin. Of the 24 projects that are underway, 92% have already experienced “major delays” and are now months and even years behind schedule.

Deal With Trump Administration

In response to THE CITY’s questions, NYCHA attributed the slow pace to delays in obtaining required bureaucratic approvals coupled with problems hiring contractors, proposed bids coming in over budget, and — not surprisingly — the pandemic.

De Blasio made his initial $2 billion promise in June 2018 but only after his hand was forced. Federal prosecutors had filed a damning complaint documenting years of deliberate coverup by NYCHA managers who’d lied about unsafe apartment conditions from mold infestations to toxic lead paint.

The money commitment was originally part of a consent decree the mayor had entered into with the prosecutors and then-President Trump’s Housing Secretary Ben Carson. From there, the route from promise to delivery quickly filled up with obstacles.

First a federal judge declined to sign off on the consent decree, dubbing it a wish list that “suffers from fatal procedural flaws, including its formless injunctive relief and enforcement mechanisms.” Soon after the Manhattan U.S. Attorney withdrew the suit — and the judge was now out of the picture.

De Blasio, NYCHA and Carson then inked a final agreement — reached without court oversight — that wasn’t announced until January 31, 2019.

Because the deal was reached out of court, the agreement now has no supervision by a judge who could impose sanctions at will if he or she felt real progress was not happening.

At that point the money began to flow at a rate of $250 million per fiscal year for the first four years, then $200 million per year for the remaining six.

“And that is money that will be well spent on behalf of the people who live in NYCHA,” de Blasio vowed that day.

NYCHA wasn’t exactly out of the gate with a plan.

Another year passed before NYCHA submitted a draft to the monitor, sending it over on March 3, 2020 — just in time for the pandemic and a six-month halt to capital spending imposed by City Hall on all agencies. It took another year for the monitor, HUD and federal prosecutors to sign off on it, which didn’t happen until May 7, 2021.

“This gap of more than two years was a result of multiple mandated prerequisites and oversight reviews, and a spending moratorium due to an unforeseen global pandemic,” NYCHA spokesperson Rochel Leah Goldblatt stated in an emailed response to THE CITY’s questions.

The Atlantic Terminal Houses in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.
Photo by Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Every Program Delayed

Meanwhile, as de Blasio’s promised pennies from heaven became bogged down in New York City’s multi-agency bureaucratic swamp, the delays have had real-time effects on real people who pay rent and reasonably expect their landlord to respond to untenable living conditions.

The internal NYCHA report to the monitor provides tenants and taxpayers a first glimpse of what’s actually going on behind the scenes to make good on de Blasio’s promise — and it’s not a good look.

Delays are found in every program, the report finds.

  • Projects to install new heating systems in six developments with histories of heat outages are now between 38 weeks and two years behind schedule. Construction has yet to begin at three, while the hiring of contractors for the other three has been delayed.
  • The campaign to abate lead paint has been hampered by new standards the city adopted last year that lowered the amount of lead present in an apartment to trigger a cleanup. The report cites NYCHA’s “inability to rapidly complete retesting under new standards due to lack of internal and vendor capacity.”
  • A plan to replace garbage compactor systems at seven developments is now 75 weeks behind schedule. A rash of recent fires that started in garbage chutes — including one that killed a 6-year-old boy — has kicked off an investigation and ramped up calls to fix these antiquated systems.

The NYCHA spokesperson offered varying justifications for the delays in each of these programs.

She said the new lead paint standard didn’t take effect until December, and since then NYCHA has tested 7,658 apartments at a rate of 200 per day.

On heating fixes, she said that at two of the developments the requested work was too big for one vendor and had to be split into two jobs, which delayed the hiring of contractors.

As for compactor installation now more than a year behind schedule, she said delays in vetting vendors have been resolved. She noted, “NYCHA has been working with the Monitor team to refine this timetable based on the scope of work and conversations with the industry.”

Elevators Out of Order

The report also highlights extreme delays in finally addressing one of NYCHA’s biggest failures: consistently faulty elevators at some high-rise apartment buildings, particularly those with lots of elderly residents.

Elevator outages are a serious headache in dozens of NYCHA towers at a time. As of Wednesday, there were lift outages reported at 102 of the authority’s 320 developments — nearly one in three. At nine developments, elevators had been out of service for more than 40 hours.

To address this problem, NYCHA drafted a list of developments where elevators are most likely to fail. They came up with eight projects, each of which would entail replacing entire systems and end the out-of-service track record.

As of December, construction has begun on only two of the eight scheduled elevator projects, and both are behind schedule by 33 to 52 weeks.

In the report to the monitor, NYCHA managers mostly shifted blame for the elevator delays to city agencies, including oversight from the comptroller and Office of Management and Budget that’s meant to ensure the taxpayers get the biggest bang for their buck.

NYCHA also alleged that the city Department of Investigation’s vetting of vendors for elevator replacement “is taking significantly longer than planned,” with the average turnaround increasing from 45 to 140 days.

On Friday DOI spokesperson Diane Struzzi denied this, stating that the average turnaround on NYCHA vendor name checks actually improved after 2020 to between 36 and 48 days. This year so far it’s averaging 41 days.

This type of oversight by OMB, DOI and the comptroller is supposed to be factored into any city contract from the start, and Goldblatt said NYCHA is working with all three agencies to speed up approvals.

‘It’s Unacceptable’

The one city-funded project that is close to on schedule is a pilot effort to comprehensively address lead paint and mold infestations by making every unit lead-free and completely replacing the leaky water pipes that are often the cause of mold. Called “Comp Mod,” the ongoing projects at St. Nicholas Houses in Harlem and Todt Hill Houses in Staten Island are a mere six weeks behind schedule.

Complaints about NYCHA managers adopting a glacial pace of spending the money they’re handed are not new. During a recent City Council council hearing on NYCHA’s budget, Councilmember Rafael Salamanca, D-The Bronx, called them out on this.

Salamanca, whose district includes several developments, noted that back in fiscal 2018 he’d allocated $3 million for upgraded door entry security systems, called layered access, at the Melrose Houses.

But NYCHA didn’t get around to hiring a firm to design the new system until last fall and doesn’t expect the work to be complete until 2024 — six years after Salamanca set aside the money.

Salamanca was particularly upset because while NYCHA managers appear at times to sit on the money it’s given, they simultaneously complain that they don’t have enough to address what they now say is $40 billion in needed upgrades.

“It’s unacceptable how you guys operate. You’re here asking for $40 billion,” he said, warning his City Council colleagues, “If you want your project completed, do not give money to NYCHA.”

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