City Council Hearing Reveals Inadequate COVID-19 Response from NYCHA

Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel, Chair of the Committee on Public Housing, speaks at the NYCHA oversight hearing on June 29, 2020. Image Credit: New York City Council

Residents voiced concerns about mold, ventilation and lack of signage. On June 29, 2020, the New York City Council’s Committee on Public Housing and the Committee on Housing and Buildings held a joint hearing to discuss the steps that the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) are taking to protect residents from the spread of COVID-19.

Committee on Public Housing Chair Alicka Ampry-Samuel began the hearing by discussing how COVID-19 disproportionately affects black and brown communities. Chair Ampry-Samuel stated that NYC neighborhoods with the highest concentration of black and brown residents have the highest rates of COVID-related deaths. Chair Ampry-Samuel also noted that the number of COVID-related deaths amongst NYCHA residents is nearly double the Citywide average, and the number of COVID-related hospitalizations in neighborhoods with NYCHA properties is 30% higher than the City average. Chair Ampry-Samuel added that the Committees tried to schedule this hearing a month ago, but the hearing was delayed due to scheduling issues related to COVID-19 response efforts.

Councilmember Farah Louis, member of the Committee of Housing and Buildings, followed Councilmember Ampry-Samuel by discussing CDC safety precautions such as social distancing, disinfecting, and providing residents with information on how to stay healthy.

The Committees heard from members of the public before hearing from the City agencies. Members of the public included representatives from Claremont Consolidated, the Fifth Avenue Committee, building representatives, and residents. Testimony focused on issues such as sanitation, signage, building maintenance, and ventilation systems.

In NYCHA’s opening statement, Chair and CEO Greg Russ discussed NYCHA’s response efforts to COVID-19, including sanitation, outreach through signage, social media, and phone calls to residents, and simplifying Rent Hardship Policies. Chair Russ stated that NYCHA’s goals are to increase sanitation and communication efforts and to seek capital to modernize NYCHA buildings. Chair Russ stated, “amidst the challenges of this rapidly changing situation, we remain guided by our top priority: the health, safety, and quality of life of our residents.”

In HPD’s opening statement, Executive Director Deputy Commissioner Baaba Halm discussed HPD’s outreach for the GetCool Air Conditioning Program for seniors, HPD’s efforts to connect residents to sanitation services, and Housing Maintenance Code complaints that have been filed during the pandemic. Halm also discussed COVID-19 prevention measures for building owners, such as limiting elevator occupancy, cleaning high-touch surfaces, limiting access to common areas, and maintaining ventilation systems for optimal indoor air quality.

The following sections include questions from councilmembers and testimony from NYCHA residents, NYCHA’s Executive Team, and HPD.


Sanitation in NYCHA Buildings

NYCHA stated that senior buildings are sanitized five times per week, family buildings are sanitized three times per week, and that the sanitizing focuses on high-touch and high-traffic areas. NYCHA has hired over 1,000 workers – the majority of whom are NYCHA residents – to supplement the sanitation staff. However, residents stated that buildings are not sufficiently cleaned and that the staff does not always clean family buildings 3 times per week. Residents also reported seeing staff use water instead of a disinfectant solution when cleaning high-touch areas.

Chair Louis asked Chief Compliance Officer Dan Greene about how sanitation is monitored. CCO Green stated that NYCHA has 20 field inspectors who have completed 4100 inspections. COO Green also reviews sanitation complaints submitted on NYCHA’s website, and NYCHA responds to telephone complaints from residents. Councilmember Rivera suggested that NYCHA distribute a weekly summary of daily inspection reports to NYCHA staff and residents.

PPE Use and Distribution

Chair Russ stated that over 100,000 masks have been given to essential staff, and NYCHA has 450,000 additional masks in stock. Chair Russ also reported that NYCHA visits buildings daily to monitor mask usage. HPD stated that employees connect residents to neighborhood services that assist with PPE access.

Housing Maintenance Complaints

NYCHA directed residents to submit their complaints through the NYCHA website, or by calling the Customer Contact Center. However, when Chair Ampry-Samuel asked about building operations, General Manager & Chief Operating Officer Vito Mustaciuolo stated that NYCHA has suspended all in-unit work besides lead, mold, and emergency issues for social distancing purposes. Councilmember Mark Gjonaj and Chair Russ discussed the “hundreds of thousands” of repairs accumulating due to social distancing. Councilmember Gjonaj emphasized that there are major issues that need to be addressed besides COVID-19 and that workers who do not have symptoms of COVID-19 and wear proper PPE should resume routine maintenance.

During the hearing, multiple residents discussed rodent infestation, mold, and frequent elevator outages. One resident stated that NYCHA told her to leave rodent feces on the ground as proof of infestation, and that NYCHA staff removed the black mold in her unit by wiping it away with a towel.  HPD testified to receiving 316 complaints about vermin and mold since March.

Communication and Signage 

NYCHA completed 2.35 million COVID-19 related communications, including phone calls and emails with residents, advocates, employees, and elected officials. NYCHA stated that the COVID-19 Guidance & Resource page and NYCHA’s social media pages are regularly updated.

Additionally, NYCHA posts COVID-19 safety posters in 5 languages throughout all buildings and distributes information in 13 other languages. However, residents state that in some buildings, there is no COVID-19 signage unless it is rent-related. Residents suggested posting signage that state distancing precautions for elevator use and that model 6 feet of distance.

Ventilation Systems

Chair Russ stated that most residents have a fan in their unit and that NYCHA is experimenting with oversized fans on the roof for more circulated air. Members of the public stated that the ventilation systems in some NYCHA buildings have not been cleaned since each system’s installation and that HVAC units are often moldy.

Financial Burden on Tenants

NYCHA has suspended evictions and simplified Rent Hardship Policies. Since rent is 30 percent of a resident’s income, residents without income will not have to pay rent.

Senior Citizen Care

Since mid-April, NYCHA has delivered more than 5 million meals to over 80,000 seniors. Executive Vice President for Community Engagement Sideya Sherman stated that NYCHA calls seniors to identify residents in need of food, medication, or other resources. NYCHA has also partnered with New York Cares to provide a “buddy” program for seniors who wish to receive ongoing wellness checks.

Both NYCHA and HPD contact residents who are eligible for the “GetCool” Air Conditioner Program, which provides free air-conditioners for seniors. Councilmember Barry Grodenchik asked Chair Russ about NYCHA’s progress in installing the air conditioners, to which Chair Russ replied that NYCHA installs 500-750 units per day, and has installed 7,500 units so far.

The City provided 10,000 free tablets to keep seniors connected to friends and family. These tablets are preloaded with the MyNYCHA App, and important links such as the Older Adults Technology Services.  However, members of the public reported that most seniors do not know how to use the tablets, and need tutorials.

Watch the full hearing here.

By: Victoria Agosta (Victoria is the CityLaw intern and a New York Law School student, Class of 2022.)



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