Low lands, bad lands, bad landlords

November 12, 2012 | Cities, Economics, Land use, New York City, NYCHA, Public housing, Rental

By:David A. Smith


Just as Hurricane Katrina exposed the incapacity of New Orleans and the obsolescence of its public housing, superstorm Sandy has demonstrated the high cost of the trifecta of inferior locations, long-term structural neglect, and horribly inept management at the New York City Housing Authority, as reported a week ago by the New York Daily News (November 4, 2012), and supplemented a week later (New York Daily News, November 10, 2012):


Jose Reyes, without power at Red Hook Houses for more than a week, hugs sister Emily Mieles.

“We have seen nobody,” said a furious Diedre Jackson of Surfside Houses in Coney Island, whose apartment was still frigid and dark Friday [November 8, 2012 – Ed.].

Dozens of shell-shocked tenants at several hard-hit developments told the Daily News last week that the few NYCHA workers they saw during 12 days of hell offered neither information nor help.

They scoffed at Chairman John Rhea’s claim that NYCHA workers hit the ground right after Hurricane Sandy, updating residents on what he said was an aggressive effort to restore power, water and heat.

“They kept giving me different dates” for when power would resume, said Grandon Gibbs, a resident of the Red Hook Houses.


Grandon Gibbs says it took days for the city to start pumping out his building’s basement


Nearly 140,000 houses and apartments remain without electricity as the mercury is expected to dip lower overnight for the next few days. About 40,000 families are in need of warmer lodgings.

Thousands of New Yorkers who survived superstorm Sandy — and are sticking it out in homes without power — now risk freezing to death as temperatures plunge, officials warned Sunday.


“You can die from being cold,” Mayor Bloomberg said Sunday as he revealed that up to 40,000 families need warmer, safer lodging — half of them in public housing with few other options.


Missing from these pronouncement is any sense of genuine urgency – or for that matter, any indication that NYCHA’s ossified leadership is doing anything about it:


Officials are so worried about a killer cold snap that workers are going door to door in New York City Housing Authority projects to urge the elderly and sick to leave their darkened homes.


And go where?


November 4, 2012: Hector Negron uses a flashlight as he enters his Coney Island apartment building operated by the New York City Housing Authority. Negron says his building still has no heat, hot water or electricity following superstorm Sandy.


[As of November 4, 2012], nearly 140,000 houses and apartments are without power — 75,000 in Queens; 21,000 on Staten Island; 24,000 in Brooklyn; 13,000 in the Bronx and less than 5,000 in Manhattan.


Of the total, at least 20,000 are in public housing, some of which will be out of commission for “a very long time,” Bloomberg said without naming which NYCHA developments will be shut for repairs.


No, if the properties were named, that might be embarrassing, mightn’t it?  Then the public agency could be held accountable by sending reporters to interview residents. 


If it seems to you that public housing is disproportionately suffering, you’re right; New York has 3,350,000 housing units, of which 179,000 are public housing, of 5.3% of the total; but of the outages, 15% are in public housing – triple the city-wide average.


The reason is not merely NYCHA’s incompetence, but something much deeper seeded: the choice of locations.  Just as in Old New Orleans, where much of HANO’s stock was built in the poorest ground, NYCHA’s inventory was largely located in questionable places, as revealed in a not-making-the-connection story from the New York Times (November 3, 2012) (Arial blue):


It was part of the great tragedy of Hurricane Katrina that the poor seemed to suffer worst, while the better off, living farther above sea level, fared much better. Historically, in many cities of course, elevation has held cachet.


During Katrina, the poor did suffer worst, because their housing was built on the worst landlowest-lying, least stable – and that happens because the best land is built upon first, and what is built upon first tends to become ever more valuable over the decades and centuries.


French Quarter, garden District, above sea level, no problem

Wards up by Lake Pontchartrain, below sea level and flooded out


Most of those houses were a total loss, due to lawyers, molds, and money


That was true in New York City, too, until the city shifted from shipping and manufacture to being an information destination:


The waterfront in New York City has never been a suitable place to live.


The New York waterfront, 1876


And yet in recent years affluent New Yorkers have been encouraged to colonize it with great fervor. The trend began in the late ’60s and ’70s, with the development of Battery Park City and its high rises, on landfill.


Building on landfill is fine … if you know the city won’t flood


Before urban redevelopment, however, there was slum clearance, and that meant moving the poor.


And only good things will happen to you?


It’s the needy who have been sequestered downward. Not long ago, Ms. Drake, a landscape architect, curious about the placement of New York City’s public housing, devised a map to find out how much of it was built on flood zones. The answer, she discovered, was, most of it. Public housing lines the waterfront in Coney Island, on the Lower East Side, in the Rockaways.


1943: A swath of the Lower East Side disappears to make way for Stuyvesant Town


This is not the result of progressive and munificent city planning aimed at enhancing the day-to-day aesthetic experience of the poor. Instead it was the result of low-lying waterfront land available at a cheap price. In her book Manhattan: Water Bound, the urban planner Ann L. Buttenwieser explains that land on which the Vladeck Houses on Water Street were built in 1939 was bought for $7 a square foot.


Documenting land purchases at seven bucks a foot


Actually, $7 a foot in would be $305,000 an acre, and in 1939 that would have been good money.

New renters, Vladeck Houses, 1940


Eight years earlier, in 1931, when the River House, which would become one of the most exclusive residences in New York, went up on the far end of East 52nd Street, it took a kind of distinctly unconventional elitism to live there.


The view from River House, 1931


But then, unlike in the present day, the water offered something practical beyond a view. It offered a boat landing (from which the department store heir Marshall Field III could get to his house on Long Island in 35 minutes). Your investment delivered an unsurpassable fantasy: escape.


The real Gatsby could sail away


That was Manhattan, even in 1931 the epicenter of money and fashion.  Elsewhere in the boondocks – Canarsie, Far Rockaway, Astoria – NYCHA properties sprouted, and for five or more decades they have stood, solid and mute, and unflooded.


Until now, when a single storm exposed the cost of the decades of neglect, public housing’s dependency trap, and a public housing management team more concerned with politics and power squabbles than in doing the job of reinvesting in their property.


A pathetic list of ‘positives’, and an embarrassing list of ‘opportunities for improvement’


City officials said they inspected all NYCHA buildings in flood zones and that none sustained structural damage. More than 100 buildings at 17 developments had no power Sunday night [November 4, 2012 – Ed.]. About two dozen had flooding in boiler rooms, but most have been pumped dry.


NYCHA’s housing, built in a bygone era, is incredibly sturdy: their concrete skeletons and bricks exteriors will last a dozen storms.  But their systems – HVAC, electrical, plumbing, and elevators – these technological constructs were obsolete already, under-maintained already, and in need of rehab.


“These are public housing projects where sand and water got into the boilers and the whole electrical system’s been destroyed and it takes a long time to (fix) that,” said Mayor Bloomberg.


What with the mold and the rust, the systems may be irreparable; they may need wholesale replacement.


David Wood, the project manager from Belfor Property Restoration, said he dealt with the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina, Ivan and Ike — and the damage from Sandy is worse.


“There was at least two inches of mud all the way through,” he said. “It was nasty. We were in here with scoop shovels. It was thick. It was just filthy.”


“The salt water is corrosive. Most of the electrical will have to be replaced. The whole first floor is going to have to be gutted. It’s a mess.”


And what is NYCHA doing about it?  Precious little:


“We’re trying to (add shelters) every place we can,” Mayor Bloomberg said.


Naturally, New York’s enlightened elite opposed such developments when they were proposed.


“We’re looking for places. We don’t have a lot of empty housing in this city, so it’s really a problem.”


The situation is just as dire in zapped neighborhoods from Staten Island to Queens.

In the Rockaways, Rickey Gardner, 59, picked up some rice cakes, pasta and water from a distribution center — but they didn’t have the top item on his wish list.

“People need heat more than they need food,” said Gardner, who began crying as he spoke to a reporter.


He said he was afraid if he left his powerless home, it would be looted. But he was sending his ailing 79-year-old mother and 12-year-old niece to stay with friends in Brooklyn who have heat.


Family helps when the city does not. 


Lorraine Bryant, NYCHA resident of Edgemere


Their stairwell, still without power last Friday


“At night, you have to boil pots of water just to keep the house warm,” he said.


That’s scandalous, especially when lack of coordination is undermining relief efforts.


A mobile boiler truck is parked in middle of Red Hook, Brooklyn, complex but not hooked up to provide heat and hot water to tenants.

Annie Coleman, 67, stood in line for three hours for blankets after enduring several bitter nights in the devastated neighborhood.


“It’s freezing,” she said. “It’s so cold you can’t even sleep. Every night, the temperature is dropping.”


Bloomberg admitted there is no comprehensive plan for sheltering the hardest-hit victims of Sandy but said it’s the top priority.


Oh, really?  Actions speak louder than words, you know.  And rent credits are scarcely a consolation prize, with over 25,000 people still without electricity, heat, or hot water.


Gowanus Houses resident Daisy Torres, pictured with her daughter Wendy, is one of hundreds of NYCHA tenants still without power after Sandy

The affected developments [without power] were Coney Island I (Site 8), Surfside Gardens, O’Dwyer Gardens, Red Hook East and Red Hook West in Brooklyn and Redfern in Queens.


Another 18,140 residents in 96 buildings in 14 developments were without heat or hot water.  Those developments were Carey Gardens, Coney Island, Coney Island I (Site 8), Coney Island I (Sites 4 and 5), O’Dwyer Gardens, Surfside Gardens, Red Hook East and Red Hook Westin Brooklyn; Lower East Side Rehab (Group 5) in Manhattan; and Carleton Manor, Hammel, Ocean Bay Apartments (Bayside) and Redfern in Queens.