So Many Problems, So Little Money

A loud clatter of trash hitting the pavement wakes the Rivera family in their third floor apartment at 3 a.m. on a weeknight, again. They have been disturbed by illegal dumping countless times in their Dewitt Clinton Houses apartment on 110th St. and Park Ave. and they know there are probably more nights like this still to come.

“It makes a lot of noise and I’ve got three little kids,” said Mirta Rivera, 57, whose apartment faces the garbage dumpster for the entire building. Not to mention the sour smell of rotting waste that often prevents her from opening her windows during the day.

Incidences like these are just one of the problems within the New York City public housing buildings throughout East Harlem. Problems with sanitation, elevator breakdowns and crime have plagued housing complexes throughout the city for years and lately they have only been getting worse. Illegal dumping and poor sanitation has been an ongoing issue and elevator fatalities and crime rates are increasing. On top of all of these problems, current nationwide budget cuts pose an even larger threat to these residences.

Tenant associations and management now have fewer resources such as staff and supplies to help keep these issues under control and provide proper upkeep within buildings. A slash in city funding means less supplies and staff member to help maintain the buildings and public housing property.

But despite a decrease in dollars, there are some tenants who are working hard to improve the quality of life in these houses. Even though funds are low on national and citywide levels, certain residents are keeping their hopes high and coming up with innovative ways to improve where they live without spending any money.

There are 23,028 public housing apartments in East Harlem alone– the highest number of units in New York City. Illegal dumping and misuse of the provided trash bins is a huge problem involving sanitation in city-owned housing.

At East River Houses Consolidated – which encompasses Metro North Plaza, Gaylord White Houses, Woodrow Wilson Houses and East River Houses – nearby stores, co-ops and other businesses frequently drop off old mattresses, furniture, appliances and debris illegally on their compound, officials say. This saves the dumpers money in times of a weak economy because they are avoiding the costs of a truck or the labor to haul the garbage.

“This is a citywide problem,” said Nelson Diaz, 46, who has worked in public housing for more than 22 years and is currently the superintendent of East River Consolidated. “Surrounding businesses do get away with murder because they dump on us when we aren’t open from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. And of course when we’re not looking.”

The building authorities and caretakers will get rid of the waste because once it is on their property, they are obligated to take care of it. This takes time out of their workdays that could be spent maintaining the buildings and the facilities.

In addition to illegal dumping, many residents do not take the time to throw their waste in the proper bins or down the garbage chute, leaving bags of foul smelling trash such as rotten food or old diapers in the halls, dropping it in zones marked for no dumping around the buildings, or even throwing it out the windows.

“The year before last someone threw a can of peas from a high floor and it hit a UPS man and split his scalp open,” said Teri Dawson, 46, who manages East River Consolidated. “Luckily he lived.”

Trash falling from the sky is not the only hazard in public housing. Elevator breakdowns this year have caused a number of fatalities in public housing and even the death of a 5-year-old boy. Frequent breakdowns also inconvenience and endanger residents, especially the elderly, the disabled and those with health problems.

Derek Hall, who has lived in the George Washington Houses for more than 30 years and currently lives on the fourth floor, says the elevators in his building break down almost every other day. The short walk up the stairs to his apartment doesn’t bother him, but he is more concerned for his neighbors who use wheelchairs and cannot leave their homes if the elevators are broken.

“It’s always a problem,” says Hall. “The elevators stay broken. They fix them today and they’ll be broken tomorrow.”

The danger doesn’t stop at the elevators.

Crime rates have gone up this year according to a Compstat report. Crime in public housing in the 23rd precinct of East Harlem has increased by 14.2 percent overall from 2007 to 2008. When based on a 28-day, year-to date comparison, crime in housing has gone up by 34.7 percent.

Some police officers, who requested to remain anonymous, speculate that there is more crime in recent months because of the poor economy. They say that the majority of the crime in public housing is theft and drug-related and they figure people are resorting to stealing more because they are in greater need now.

Yet the only way to fight these crimes is to hire more public housing police. The same goes for higher quality of maintenance and upkeep for elevators and sanitation. And all three of these problems will not be addressed any time soon if the money continues to dwindle.

Public housing throughout the Unites States is underfunded by nearly $500 million this year and currently has a national deficit of $32 billion according to Todd Thomas, a spokesman for the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities. The capital fund for housing, which covers all maintenance and construction nationwide was $3 billion in 2001 and this year the fund is down to $2.43 billion.  Thomas says, that this decrease in dollars is directly links to the managements’ ability to sufficiently maintain problems in housing such as sanitation and elevators.

“When there’s underfunding, housing authorities are often forced to make cuts,” said Thomas.

Teri Dawson, manager of East River Consolidated, knows exactly what Thomas is talking about. Her budget to maintain the four complexes within East River Consolidated has dropped from $151,758 in 2007 to $142,704 in 2008 along with her staff.

On November 14, the complex had to let go of all of its paint inspectors who were not civil servants – a position that requires an individual to pass a test in order to be considered a full-time employee and not just provisional. Now that the paint inspectors are gone, the rest of the maintenance staff has to take over their tasks. Under civil service laws of New York State, public authorities will have to let go of anyone who is not test certified to work for housing by 2013 due to budget cuts.

“So that’s more staff that we’ll be losing and more work that will be imposed on existing staff,” said Dawson. “How are we supposed to service those people with less staff and no money?”

Less money for public housing means fewer materials for maintenance on elevators and less money for resources to help clean buildings and control crime. For example, since management has less money, they have to hire cheaper contractors to fix broken elevators and also purchase cheaper parts, which can often be lower in quality and result in more malfunctions.

However, there are some tenants who are working hard to push for improvements in housing despite a weak economy and decreasing budget.

Take Patricia Moore, president of the Woodrow Wilson Houses tenant association, who has lived there for 19 years. Since December 2007, she has been working with members of the community to provide residents with financial services like having bankers come to educate tenants about savings plans. She has also organized services for counseling, spiritual gatherings and youth and crime programs to improve the lifestyle in public housing.

For instance, Moore works with the 23rd Police Precinct to help educate youth about drugs and crime in housing and build a better rapport between the police and the tenants of housing. She organizes information sessions where officers come and talk to residents about safety and what to do if confronted with drugs of violence.

Moore has also helped increase tenant involvement throughout her complex raising tenant membership from seven people in November 2007 to nearly 40 members this November. Three weeks ago she began meeting with the elevator supervisors regarding breakdowns and there has not been a malfunction in two weeks. When residents say they have become accustomed to at least one breakdown a week, this change is a great improvement.

Although Moore has been working for over a year to improve her development, her work with financial groups and efforts to build stronger relationships with the maintenance staff is directly linked to her concerns with the budget cuts. Moore is aware of the problems that the budget cuts present, but her dedication and work within the community has already seen more resident involvement.

“I’ve got more residents coming out to meetings,” say Moore. “Even though we are going through cutbacks this year, we are still trying.”

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