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Commentary By Howard Husock

In NYCHA, the Little Things Are a Big Deal

Cities, Cities Housing, New York City

My visit to the Pelham Parkway Houses had none of the hoopla of Gov. Cuomo’s recent visits to New York City Housing Authority developments. My wife and I were there on a quiet Sunday morning on behalf of a most worthy annual project organized by the Bronx Jewish Community Council to deliver Passover foods to poor Jews in that borough.

Yes, there are Jews living in poverty and, yes, some of them live in public housing.

But carrying the shopping bags of matzo, eggs and gefilte fish up the elevator to the sixth floor provided a chance to see NYCHA from the inside and to talk with tenants. It’s a sobering picture — less because of any evident dire emergency and because of a more general problem: a dispiriting lack of maintenance and cleanliness and even the attitude projected by NYCHA in its communications with tenants.

Yes, I realize we were middle-class visitors bringing our sensibility to public housing. Still, it’s hard to imagine anyone with a choice choosing NYCHA — not just because of the big things (that $18 billion capital backlog) but the little things that make day-to-day life so difficult.

The Pelham Parkway Houses should not be inherently problematic. Its 1,266 apartments are scattered over a campus-type setting in 23 six-story brick buildings erected in 1950. They are not classic public housing high-rises. There are nice Art Deco tiles outside the lobbies.

It’s the little things at the Pelham Parkway Houses that are telling. If broken windows are, per the New York police, signs of disorder, the security buzzers are the tipoff at Pelham Parkway. The instructions my wife and I got gave us a clue: Make sure to call the household rather than to buzz; the buzzers have long been broken.

In fact, we were told when we arrived by a tenant we met in the lobby — who let us in — that “99%” of the buzzers were broken. It’s clear that means visitors such as us — with no evident reason to be there — get let in as tenants go out, not the security for which one hopes.

In another building, the buzzers did work — but the security codes listing the individual apartments looked to have been burned by a cigarette and couldn’t be read. We remembered it was that way last year, too.

In the large open courtyard between the buildings, trash — including a large number of mattresses — was piled up in one mound after another. Perhaps that was just because it was Sunday morning but, judging by the size of the piles, they looked like they’d been accumulating for awhile.

And why in the world did so many entrances — both here and all over the NYCHA system — have scaffolding erected over the lobby entrances? One enters a kind of shed in which one can’t be seen easily from outside. Again, that can’t be good for security.

Then there was the sheer tone of the language of the signs. This is less residential life than institutional life. A lobby sign informs: no lingering, smoking, consumption of alcohol. No barbecues without permits. Why not simply include such provisions in the lease? They give the impression that such activities must be occurring and that tenants must be restrained as threats rather than respected as rent-paying customers.

The outdoor green spaces — many of them little but dirt, actually — are ringed off by chain-link fences with the admonition: “Keep off the grass.” Why? There are a smattering of benches but no picnic tables, no chess boards, no recreation.

Nor is it easy for visitors to find any specific building. Unlike most private apartments, the buildings are set on a diagonal away from the street; only by wandering around the courtyard can one find individual addresses. A NYCHA sanitation worker (“I’ve been here for years”) apologizes for not being able to direct us. Without good signage, it’s a maze.

Of course, we asked all the tenants if they’d had heat and hot water this winter — because many thousands of thousands of NYCHA tenants have not. “Off and on,” one said, in a tone of resignation. “They ‘yes’ me — and then nothing happens,” said another.

What a way to have to live, begging for the kind of services most of us take for granted. Nor did we see anything close to the worst.

There’s no doubt New York public housing needs big-ticket maintenance: boilers, roofs, plumbing. But a morning at NYCHA leaves one with the view that a lot of small-ticket fixups could make a big difference in the daily lives of tenants. An obvious solution suggests itself: outsource the management to someone who can do the job.


Howard Husock is Vice President for research and publications at the Manhattan Institute.

This piece originally appeared in New York Daily News