By Elizabeth Kim
Feb 5, 2019
When do inhumane living conditions in government-funded housing rise to the level of an emergency crisis?
That was the question some New Yorkers were asking this weekend after angry protests and demands for intervention erupted over freezing conditions at a federal jail in Brooklyn, even as thousands of New York City Housing Authority residents were also suffering without heat and hot water.
Even before outrage mounted on Friday over the conditions that arose from what officials said was a partial power outage at Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Sunset Park, the plight of NYCHA residents had been making headlines throughout last week’s cold snap. On Wednesday, the Daily News reported that NYCHA tenants were so frustrated that talks of a rent strike had begun. “It’s a disaster,” said Bertha Spivey, 76, a resident of NYCHA’s Soundview Houses in the Bronx, told the Daily News. “You can’t take showers or do dishes. We have no heat or hot water. If one goes, both go. It happens every winter for last four years.”
On Thursday, media attention on the public housing complexes peaked as a polar vortex sent temperatures plunging into the single digits. According to the New York Post, the number of NYCHA residents without hot water and heat rose to more than 14,000 at one point.
Similarly, the Legal Aid Society, which regularly tracks conditions at NYCHA, reported on Thursday that over 12,000 residents were impacted by heat and hot water interruptions.
But by late Friday, conditions at NYCHA began to take a backseat to reports of desperate conditions at MDC. Family members of inmates showed up to protest and elected officials demanded to be allowed to tour the prison, all while the inmates themselves made themselves heard through screaming and banging on the windows.
On Saturday evening, Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted that the city was sending hundreds of blankets and handwarmers to the 1,600 inmates at MDC.
The next day, the New York Times issued an editorial on Brooklyn prison's conditions that acknowledged the outrage by elected officials as justly deserved, but also included a parenthetical dig at the city's hypocrisy: "(Though one is forced to wonder whether the mayor also plans to send blankets to the 10,000 residents of public housing in the city without heat.)"
By Monday morning, a lawsuit filed by a group of public defenders against the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the jail's warden declared “a humanitarian crisis taking place" at the Brooklyn jail.
But if anything, NYCHA’s crisis goes back much farther. A recent New York Times story found one NYCHA complex in the South Bronx that has gone largely without heat for 10 years.
The city's public housing has also suffered from persistent and widespread problems with mold, lead paint, and rodents that resulted in the city agreeing to a $2.2 billion lawsuit settlement last year for its role in the mismanagement of NYCHA.
Last week, the city avoided the possibility of a federal takeover initiated by the lawsuit and reached an agreement with the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Redevelopment to allow a federally-appointed monitor to oversee NYCHA.
Several elected officials have been raising the alarm about NYCHA. On Monday, during the Brian Lehrer Show, New York City Councilmember Ritchie Torres, who chairs the Committee on Oversight and Investigations, criticized the city’s deal for failing to require HUD to commit more funding. “NYCHA is in a state of emergency and yet the agreement contains no new emergency funding from the government,” he said. He added that the lack of court supervision over the city’s $2.2 billion repair plan meant that there would “no clear mechanism for enforcement.”
Noting the 5,000 residents in the Castle Hill Houses, a public housing complex in the Bronx, that went without heat this past week, he added: “There continues to be a humanitarian crisis in public housing.”
Lewis Flores, a Queens resident who recently helped form an activist organization called Fight for NYCHA, said the events surrounding MDC showed what could happen when people quickly mobilize around the issue. “They are organized,” he said, of the MDC protestors. The same could not be said of NYCHA’s 400,000 tenants, he added.
To change that, Flores's group, which was created to oppose the authority's privatization efforts, is staging its own protest against NYCHA this Sunday at 1 p.m. on the steps of City Hall.
Norman Siegel, a civil rights attorney who is representing Fight For NYCHA, said that the protests at MDC are an example of what can happen when activism takes shape and grips a city. Public housing has been a difficult issue to rally people around, he argued, because many people believe "they can't change the status quo." Yet he said he believed people would be energized once they began to learn more about what was happening to the city's public housing.
"There are moments when a spark is lit. People can move quickly and they did this weekend," he said. "Hopefully on Sunday we’ll have lots of people and we’ll get that spirit going."