Criminal incompetence: Part 1, NYCHA’s failures

December 17, 2012 | Bloomberg, Community networks, Disaster response, Disaster risk mitigation, High-rise, HUD, Incentives, Liability, Mold, New York City, NYCHA, Public housing, Rental, Torts, US News

By:David A. Smith


Before the Federal government bestows untold billions on New York City for its recovery from Sandy, should it not ask if New York City is deserving of such bounty? 


Volunteers deliver food and inquire about specific needs among residents of the Red Hook Houses on November 16, nearly three weeks after the storm hit.  In the first two weeks following the storm, the city relied on ragtag bands of volunteers who quickly found themselves overwhelmed by the task of reaching and caring for trapped residents.


Or should Congress not examine, even if only for a two-part blog post, the shocking neglect, complacency, hypocrisy, sloth, cluelessness, indifference, and in totality criminal incompetence displayed by New York’s largest landlord, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA, rhymes with bite-cha), whose management ineptitude was on full display in this withering article from the New York Times (December 10, 2012):


Housing Agency’s Flaws Revealed by Storm


A sorry record … except nobody’s very sorry


For a blog post, irony is a better writing tone than is outrage, because outrage after a while becomes repetitive and deadening.  Yet there is no alternative: humor is out of place at a sentencing, and as we will see, NYCHA’s failures – and, more infuriating if not worse, its officials’ complete unconcern for anything except the politics – are so manifest, so inexcusable, and by the evidence here so incurable, that the authority has no justification for existence in its current state. 


Portable lighting towers, which were run on generators, were brought to communal areas in the Red Hook Houses 11 days after the storm. While the city encouraged residents to evacuate, the New York City Housing Authority was unprepared for the lingering aftermath.


As a condition of New York City receiving any aid for Sandy, Congress should require HUD to take over NYCHA and install a HUD receiver – as it already has in New Orleans, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Kansas City.


Before Sandy, during Sandy, and afterwards, NYCHA did nothing right.  Its appointed officials ran about, blathering about how things would improve, making statements wildly at variance with the facts, and confusing the issue wherever possible.  A gaggle of deputy mayors proved themselves oblivious, disengaged, and useless. 


NYCHA’s criminal incompetence put people’s lives in peril:


Three weeks after Hurricane Sandy [Which hit New York on October 29 – Ed.], fresh teams of federal disaster recovery workers rushed to Coney Island to solve a troubling mystery: few people were signing up for federal financial aid. The workers trooped into the city’s public housing towers, climbing up darkened stairwells, shouting “FEMA,” knocking on doors.



What they found surprised even these veteran crews.


Dozens of frail, elderly residents and others with special needs were still stranded in their high-rise apartments — even though life in much of New York City had returned to near normal.


This is an enormous failure of management.  Of course public housing has a larger than normal fraction of elderly and disabled – and with the elevators out, they would have been trapped in their apartments.  These people also often have no extended-family support network, so there was no one to check on them.


Bad news if the NYCHA elevators are out


In apartment 8F of one tower, Daniel O’Neill, a 75-year-old retired teacher who uses a wheelchair and who still lacked reliable electricity, cut in half the dosage of his $132-a-month medicine, which he needed to stabilize his swollen limbs.


Eric Phillipson of FEMA speaking to Daniel O’Neil in Coney Island.


“That leg looks like it could turn into gangrene,” said Eric Phillipson, a United States Army Ranger turned planner for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, promising to alert the Red Cross as he handed Mr. O’Neill a FEMA aid flier and hurried to the next apartment.


While it was great to have Mr. Phillipson there, for FEMA to be conducting these apartment-by-apartment door-knocks only demonstrates NYCHA’s complete failure.


Eric Phillipson, at right, a former United States Army Ranger who now works for FEMA, speaks with a resident at Nycha housing in Coney Island.


Where was NYCHA? 


It began with good intentions:


And we all know where those lead.


We promise you our intentions are good


Three days after the storm, on Nov. 1, the city enlisted a half-dozen nonprofit groups to conduct a formal canvass of high-rise buildings in the flood zone.


Already I’m angry – it took NYCHA three days to think it should inventory the public housing? 


The city had solid evidence that the needs in these towers were most likely great: only 6,800 people had shown up at shelters citywide, even though 375,000 lived in the mandatory evacuation zone, including 45,000 from public housing.


11,550 people, and not one heart among them?


NYCHA employs the staggering total of 11,563 people, and has 179,000 apartments.  If the authority had simply assigned each employee to check on 16 apartments, everyone could have been contacted within 24 hours. 


Lest you think that union rules might have prevented NYCHA’s crack workforce from taking an action as common-sense as this, imagine the effect if Chairman Rhea himself and his board/ executive team had all signed up for the first 16 apartment apiece, choosing those in six different properties from among the harder-hit areas, and inviting other NYCHA employees to join them?


Leadership? You want us to show leadership?


Hurricane Sandy put few agencies in the region to a more daunting test than it did the New York City Housing Authority — the nation’s biggest public landlord — as 402 of its buildings housing 77,000 residents lost electricity and elevators, with most of them also losing heat and hot water.


Red Hook and Gowanus (lower left), where NYCHA submerged properties abound


These lifelines were cut in some of the city’s most isolated spots, like Coney Island, Red Hook and the Rockaways.


Forty-five percent of the housing authority’s apartment buildings are in low-lying evacuation zones.


As I’ve previously posted, public housing is frequently built on the worst land, most vulnerable to flooding or storms.


An examination by The New York Times has found that while the agency moved aggressively before the storm to encourage residents to leave –


Sure – they’re good at telling other people what to do.


Do as I say …


… not as I do


– particularly those who were disabled and the needy, both it and the city government at large were woefully unprepared to help its residents deal with Hurricane Sandy’s lingering aftermath.


Missed Opportunities


Fear of rising sea levels had led the housing authority last year to start warning tenants to prepare a “go bag” to be ready to evacuate in case of a storm.


All that southern-Queens low-lying area?  Public housing is prevalent there.


The city, which did not enforce its mandatory evacuation order –


Mayor Bloomberg showed a complete lack of leadership before the storm: by the time he ordered an evacuation, it was at least 24 if not 48 hours later than it should have been, and then he took no steps to make it happen.  This was and is disgraceful.


– could not assess the medical needs of residents stuck atop darkened, freezing towers until nearly two weeks after the storm.


It relied on ragtag bands of volunteers who quickly found themselves overwhelmed by the task of reaching, comforting and caring for trapped residents.


Time and again, we have seen that self-organized networks of informed neighbors outperforms, out-delivers, and out-cares for people in neighborhoods. But New York City’s massive, systemic incompetence, centered on NYCHA, is disgusting, dangerous, intolerable … and in my view, criminal negligence. NYCHA has been revealed to be incompetent from top to bottom.  I was on record four months ago that Chairman Rhea should resign – and that was two months before Sandy.


You talking to me?


And the seemingly simplest things, like towing portable lighting towers into the Red Hook public housing complex, took 11 days, all because the housing authority had not properly prepared for a major disaster.


NYCHA has not prepared for anything.  NYCHA has not prepared for obsolescence.  NYCHA has not prepared for repairs or capital improvements.  NYCHA ran off Michael Kelly, the only capable housing authority director it had had in a decade.


HANO’s receiver


NYCHA should be in receivership, like so many other large public housing authorities have been.  If the Administration or HUD had any guts, they would take over NYCHA now, instead of kowtowing to the New York delegation’s plea for free billions in a pork-laden proposed supplemental appropriation.


Again and again, city officials publicly predicted that the crisis in public housing was on the verge of being resolved, contributing to a perception at City Hall that there was no need to mobilize an extensive effort to provide medical care.


Naturally – that was good politics.


“By tonight or tomorrow, every one of their buildings will have electricity and by early next week they will all have heat,” Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said on Nov. 9 — a promise that was off by more than a week. “So that’s a group that we did have to worry about but now do not have to worry about.”


After all, who cared about the reality?


Feet of clay? I have no feet


[Continued tomorrow in Part 2.]