Criminal incompetence: Part 3, the community network’s success

December 19, 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


[Continued from yesterday’s Part 2 and the preceding Part 1.]


After two days of posting demonstrating the utter failure of NYCHA’s command-and-control ass-and-elbows approach to crisis management, reported by the New York Times (December 10, 2012), there is a bright story about community networks, self-organized and almost spontaneously evolving, as government’s essential last-mile counterparty – and how such a network massively outperforms the formal structures whose job it was, through a combination of innovation, connectedness, and empowered people:


A makeshift map constructed by volunteers in a mobile medical unit in Coney Island.


Rueben McLaughlin, a science teacher from Public School 329 in Coney Island, which was flooded by the storm, saw the next day just how desperate the situation was. He was among several hundred teacher volunteers who were off for Election Day and who, flashlights in hand, visited public housing complexes to see how their students, their families and other tenants were doing.


Give people connection devices (like wi-fi and cell phones), give them autonomy to operate, and they self-manage at enormous speed.


Climbing the stairs at Surfside Gardens apartment building, towers operated by the housing authority a few blocks from his school, Mr. McLaughlin said he was startled as he went higher and higher in the tower: there were tenants in wheelchairs who had no way of getting downstairs, diabetics who needed insulin, others who were simply short on food or using stoves to stay warm.


“I was kind of heartbroken,” said Mr. McLaughlin, as he worked with other teachers to fill out one-page sheets on the residents he visited that detailed medical needs or other issues they had. “To see people hurting and not getting the help they needed.”


You can’t mandate heart, and all too often heart is selected out of government administrations.  It’s not recognized, not rewarded, and not a survival advantage.


City Councilman Domenic M. Recchia, Jr., who represents Coney Island, said so many tenants appeared to have medical needs that he helped arrange for a fleet of ambulances and emergency personnel to respond the next day.


Recchia knew how to take action


Tempers flared as local elected officials, like City Councilman Stephen Levin of Brooklyn, sought accurate predictions for how long utilities would be out, and why there was not a more concerted effort to assist residents. “It is an insane way to handle a crisis,” Mr. Levin said of the initial response.


Levin knows insanity when he sees it


“We need a longer-term plan,” Ms. Gibbs, who oversees health and human services, said in an interview. “The city emergency evacuation plan works great for huge numbers. But it does not look much past three or four days.”


Ms. Gibbs, who is not in housing, may be forgiven for misdiagnosing the city’s failure.  It’s not the emergency evacuation plan; rather, it’s the deadly combination of the city’s most vulnerable citizens being housed by one of its least capable authorities.  When extremis strikes and the helpless meet the clueless, tragedy ensues.


Realizing that poor city residents in the flood zones might have lost a refrigerator’s worth of food, the city authorized an extra allotment of food stamp money.


But computerized records showed that many eligible residents did not take advantage of the bonus — most likely because they could not reach markets.


Aside from the government factory seeking to solve all problems with only two products (laws and money), this demonstrates why government needs self-organized networks of community groups to act as the last-mile counterparty. 


In today’s world, there is no substitute for the human touch at the point of delivery.


Self-organized network in action


Volunteer groups like People’s Relief in Coney Island and Occupy Sandy set up curbside medical clinics and rallied teams of people to go door to door searching for trapped residents. They appeared to be better organized than the city.


I have no doubt that they were better organized than the city, because they were organized for a single purpose – delivery – and they were not encumbered by fear of torts, by union rules, or by the organizational paralysis that arises when leadership insists on too much control.


How NYCHA makes decisions: ‘pain points’


How Occupy Sandy made decisions: people pointing


In Red Hook, the logs created by volunteers reflected the evolving needs of tenants: batteries gave way to ice for chilling medicine and adult diapers. “DEAF: Knock Hard,” said the entry next to one man’s name.


Some volunteers felt the roles should have been reversed, with the city leading them. But Nazli Parvizi, the city’s commissioner for community affairs and the mayor’s point person in Brooklyn, said she felt effective in a supporting role. The volunteers were doing a good job, she said, and “I wasn’t here to change that narrative.”


A brain resides there


Ms. Parvizi shows herself the only city official with both a brain and a heart, and with a service orientation, all of which is unsurprising given her background as a former caterer:


Before starting at CAU, Commissioner Parvizi served as Executive Director of the Mayor’s Volunteer Center (MVC), where she launched and helped oversee its transition to NYC Service, the City’s primary volunteer initiative.


“What do you need?”


She also shows a commendable lack of ego:


“I was asking them, ‘What do you need?’ ”


Can you imagine another public official, from among those we have met in this post, asking people “What do you need?”  Mayor Bloomberg banned donations to homeless shelters, because the city couldn’t properly assess salt, fat and fiber in donated food.


I don’t ask people what they need


The contrast between Ms. Parvizi’s approach and that of his mayorship could not be more stark:


It was not until Nov. 9 — 11 days after Hurricane Sandy hit — that Mr. Bloomberg announced a much more robust effort to reach out to tenants of buildings still without power and heat.


This time health care professionals hired by the city under an emergency contract would all be accompanied by the National Guard, and the housing authority and other landlords were informed in advance, to make sure they could get access to all the buildings.


All of this is well and good, but by ignoring and thus sidelining the volunteer efforts, the mayor and his NYCHA chairman blew a huge opportunity to help people immediately, by harnessing what was already happening on the ground.  This is administrative elitism run rampant.


Brighton Beach residents, most waiting for the FEMA office to open to file claims, at a community center that offered its gym for FEMA to use.


It was as these medical teams canvassed the housing authority buildings that the repairs on the heating and electrical systems started to pick up. The city had brought in a small army of electricians and other crews under emergency contracts, who began rebuilding the damaged electrical systems and installing the temporary boilers.


These crews worked extraordinary hours — 16-hour shifts in many cases — but the effort still took much longer than Mr. Bloomberg had predicted: it was not until Nov. 18 that the final buildings had heat and hot water.


By then, how many people had suffered?


A construction worker builds a wooden casing around temporary boilers outside of Nycha housing in Coney Island. The covers will help protect the boilers from rain and snow. The city had brought in a small army of electricians and other crews under emergency contracts, some working 16 hour shifts. Twenty-six of the housing authority’s basement boiler rooms flooded, leaving 34,565 apartments without heat and hot water.


Mr. O’Neill, the tenant at the O’Dwyer Gardens complex near Surf Avenue, was among the thousands who thought the recovery would take merely days. Having contracted polio at age 13, he said his chief reason for not leaving was his extra high toilet. “Even hospital toilets are too low,” he said.


He wore extra clothes for the cold and got food and water from the volunteers. But he could not contact his doctor. And while volunteers could have gotten him medicine, he had no money for it. 


Adrien Weibgen, a volunteer with People’s Relief in Coney Island, organizes notecards with information about the needs of the Nycha buildings in Coney Island. In some cases, the volunteers appeared to be better organized than the city.


Volunteers are a resource to be used – and in fact, when one uses volunteers effectively, they become a self-renewing resource because more people want to volunteer.  I’m convinced that volunteering is in everyone’s DNA, part of the sociability genes that make homo sapiens successful as a species, but it can be used only if the volunteer is placed into a structure whereby the volunteer can do something achievable, finite, visible, impactful, and personally satisfying. 


This requires a different management approach to administration and management, one much more like Ms. Parvizi’s “how can I help?” than Mayor Bloomberg’s “no you can’t” finger-wagging or Chairman Rhea’s “we have no money” laments.


No, you can’t point fingers, only I can point fingers


Had the city or NYCHA made any connections to volunteers, the missing links could have been forged into a hybrid value chain.  As we saw earlier, the city decided everybody should get a double ration of food stamps, but the people had no ability access that. 


Last week, FEMA continued its door-to-door canvassing, where the mystery of why people had not signed up for federal aid was solved. Many residents spoke only Russian, while others were still struggling to cope with more pressing needs.


Volunteers could have and should have been the missing link to enable delivery, at scale and at speed.  And while NYCHA’s and the mayor’s defenders may protest that it would have been hard to set up such a network quickly and accountably, the very success of Occupy Sandy and the People’s Relief gives that the lie.  People have brains, and people have hearts, and in emergencies they will use both.


Volunteers calling themselves People’s Relief were the first and most consistent responders to Nycha housing in Coney Island. Here they set up a makeshift office in a building on Neptune Ave.


Mr. O’Neill cut his dosage in half for more than two weeks — until a volunteer from Baltimore gave him cash so someone could help him refill his prescription.


Asked about the City Hall view that residents should bear the consequences of their decisions to tough storms out, Mr. O’Neill winced. “Well, we’re survivors, many of us around here,” he said. “But look out the window. The ocean is right there. It’s nice 99.99% of the time. And then it’s not.”


NYCHA showed it has neither.


Mr. Rhea and other city officials said that in retrospect, the agency could have done more before the storm to identify possible contractors or replacement equipment to speed up the response.


As I said earlier in this multi-part post, any private landlord with this record of negligence, incompetence, misconduct and malfeasance would be buried under litigation, led by the city government.  No less retribution should fall upon NYCHA.


John Rhea, Nycha’s chairman, talking to people in a complex in the Rockaways in Queens. Mr. Rhea said he regretted the hardship many public housing residents had suffered through — but he said [With no evidence whatsoever – Ed.] his tenants received more care and attention than those who lived in private buildings.


Fire John Rhea.  Fire the whole board.  None of them have shown any sense of urgency, any accountability, any innovativeness or commitment to results. 


For that matter, an enterprising class-action lawyer (New York legal aid, perhaps?) should file litigation on behalf of all NYCHA public housing tenants who lost power and heat, against the authority, for gross negligence and comprehensive violations of the city’s rental housing ordinances and its building codes.  Those who died in NYCHA public housing should sue the city for wrongful death.


What’s wrong with NYCHA? Here’s the answer


And finally, before the City of New York gets any Federal money for its rebuilding, put NYCHA into Federal receivership.  The authority has become a travesty.


And HUD, if you’re looking for a receiver, you might try Ms. Parvizi, who doesn’t know enough to know what’s impossible.


“I was asking them, ‘What do you need?’ “