Out of Service
The Fall of NYC Public Housing
by Ian Kumamoto
NYCHA is Failing its Most Vulnerable Tenants. Are We Near the End of Public Housing As We Know It?
On the odd days when the heat, the water and the elevators all work in Henry Hidron’s apartment building—he thinks of them as the “holy trinity”—he feels like he’s won the lottery. The rest of the time he just hopes against hope that the elevators will function, the water will spout clear from his faucets, and the heat in his bedroom, with its two large windows facing Rutgers Street on New York City’s Lower East Side, will not shut off without warning. Again.
This past Jan. 26, when the polar vortex sent temperatures plummeting to a numbing 27 degrees Fahrenheit, odds for the 58-year-old Hidron were unfavorably stacked. It was the same for the rest of the 2,600 residents of LaGuardia Houses, the public housing complex where he’s lived for eight years. His next door neighbor, a woman in her 30s with a history of heavy drug use, screamed obscenities at the wind, or perhaps at management. She banged on the walls until Hidron’s kitchenette rattled. A block away in the same complex, Rosa Perez, who is 68 and lives alone, waited for her son to pick her up in his beat-up Volvo because she was worried the low temperatures would make her ill.
In Hidron’s two-bedroom fourth floor flat, the thermostat never rose above 47 degrees. He bundled up in an old sweater, a black Patagonia jacket, and a tan acrylic blanket and sat on his air mattress, taking his time with a bowlful of Cinnamon Toast Crunch soaked in soy milk. To help keep his mind off the cold, he stared at the monitor attached to his 2012 LCD Dell as the Golden State Warriors slipped by the Boston Celtics, 115 to 111. Once the game ended, Hidron stood up to use the bathroom down the hall and returned a few minutes later.
“The toilet’s not flushing,” he said on return. “The entire goddamn building is broken.”
There’s a sameness to the horror stories people tell about NYCHA, the government-run New York Housing Authority. They all seem to copy/paste from the same template: an indignant reporter enters a resident’s home. The disgruntled tenant exposes moldy ceilings and chipping walls. Newspaper readers or TV anchors shake their heads in disbelief. From Flint-like levels of lead in the faucets of at least six buildings to the highly publicized orgies orchestrated by NYCHA employees on company time, a federal judge compared the state of NYCHA to “the biblical plagues of Egypt.”
One in every 14 New Yorkers, or approximately 400,000 low-income citizens across 334 developments, live in NYCHA buildings. Out of those buildings, nearly a fifth of the residents are more than 50 years old.
In conversations over the past seven months with 53 public housing dwellers—from college students who have lived as unauthorized occupants of NYCHA apartment for months, weeks, or just days, to seniors who’ve been resident for decades—all expressed serious skepticism that NYCHA was capable of changing in the fundamental ways needed to improve their quality of life. Topping the list of barriers has been the $2.7 billion drop in federal funding for that agency since 2001 and the subsequent deterioration of the housing stock.
It has had a huge impact on all tenants, particularly the elderly and mentally ill who have the fewest prospects for finding other places to live. A report compiled by NYCHA and CUNY found that 80 percent of NYCHA seniors suffer from two or more chronic conditions and nearly a third are not able to care for themselves. In addition, nearly a quarter of all NYCHA residents “described their mental health as fair or poor,” compared to some 10 percent of the city’s general population.
The anticipated increase in demand for mental and senior services—from some, but not all aging residents in the projects—is in tension with available and anticipated resources. In September 2018, James Scanlon, NYCHA’s vice president of capital planning and design, said that most of the money that will be poured into public housing will target apartment repairs over social services. This includes the $2.2 billion that HUD,the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, has agreed to invest in NYCHA over the next 10 years. As large a sum as that may seem, it’s a tiny fraction of actual need. Last year, Politico reported that if the agency was to address all the necessary repairs and other urgent problems, the price tag would be $32 billion, or about a third of New York City’s entire budget. Conditions are so dire that the Agency is currently being subjected to federal oversight, which is meant to ensure that NYCHA uses its funds to upgrade the properties.
By 2030, people aged 65 and older will make up 20 percent of all NYCHA residents, up 3 percent from the current level. In addition, a 2015 study conducted in the Bronx found higher rates of depression among people living in public housing than for other low-income citizens in that borough. Unpredictable electricity and water outages contribute to the uncertainty of everyday life in public housing, which the reports cites as one of the reasons for tenant issues with mental health. And yet, New York City’s Housing Preservation and Development guide underscores the right of all city tenants to “security measures, heat, hot and cold water, and good lighting.” Most of the NYCHA residents I interviewed make do without these essentials at least once a month.
With no real incentive by management to fix problems in a timely manner, issues can persist for years. The tenants with special mental and physical needs exemplify the government’s inability to care for its most vulnerable citizens.
NYCHA disses by politicians have become a staple of contemporary New York City politics. Earlier this year, a feud between Mayor Bill De Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo erupted into what the New York Times called a “tug of war” and Vice, a “Shakespearean drama.” De Blasio, who ran a pro-public housing campaign for mayor, complained that the state had not delivered on most of the $300 million in NYCHA funds it pledged between 2015 and 2017. Cuomo countered in March of 2018, by visiting public housing projects in the Bronx and East Harlem. He used the occasion to take a clear jab at De Blasio. “There is no one who will see what I saw,” Cuomo said in front of dozens of cameras and tenants, “and allow it to continue.” That same month, Congress announced it would increase federal funding for NYCHA for the next three decades.
NYCHA dissing happens all along the political spectrum. Brooklyn Borough president Eric L. Adams called management at public housing a “cesspool of cultural indifference.” Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., a candidate for the 2021 mayoral race, tweeted a picture of a “neglected mountain of garbage” at the Sotomayor Houses. At the national level, young populist politicians like newly elected US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents District 14, point to NYCHA’s state of disrepair as a symptom of a larger crisis that denies working class Americans the right to decent homes.
The subject has even found its way into presidential campaigns. During Bernie Sander’s 2016 bid for the White House, he visited three NYCHA developments in the Bronx and promised if elected to help pay for repairs at those buildings by revamping the costly prison system and increasing taxation on the rich. “This is a solvable problem,” Sanders said of NYCHA. “Building housing is not a radical idea.”
Was he wrong?
As if living in dilapidated buildings were not problem enough for the mentally ill and elderly, there is a pervasive feeling among tenants that NYCHA is angling to kick them out of their homes.
Lillian Brown is a 70-year-old tenant at the Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City, one of New York’s largest projects and a mere two blocks from the site Amazon had scouted for its scuttled plan to establish a second headquarters. At the time, she was convinced that De Blasio had plans to turn Queensbridge into “condominiums for yuppies.” Months after the protests that prompted Amazon to withdraw its plans, I asked Brown how she felt about the corporate behemoth’s reversal. “So very elated,” she said, but then, after a few minutes, her tone shifted. “But I’m not sure how many more victories like this we can have. Amazon lost this time, but what if Coca-Cola wins the next one?”
I’m not sure how many more victories like this we can have. Amazon lost this time, but what if Coca-Cola wins the next one?” -Lillian Brown, resident of the Queensbridge Houses
Not only the elderly and otherwise incapacitated, but among the tenants I interviewed, nearly half—23— shared the belief that a move to privatization is in the near offing, a conspiracy theory fueled by Facebook community groups that help many make sense of why the government allows their buildings to deteriorate to the point of uninhabitability. Many also believe that NYCHA prioritizes older tenants because once they die off, private developers will be able to take possession of the buildings with fewer challenges. As a case in point, posts on this site point to the wholesale privatization five years ago of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village.
The Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village complex is made up of 110 buildings in the East Side of Manhattan and was built to provide World War II veterans access to affordable housing. Through a public-private partnership, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company developed the buildings in 1947, every block with the same brick-box-and-green-space design then popular among NYCHA-planners. Viewed from above, the complex looks like clusters of fused-together Tetris pieces. Twenty-five years later, the deal between MetLife and the city ended with MetLife assuming full rights to the development, under the condition that the apartments remain affordable to middle-income New Yorkers.
In 2006, MetLife sold the historic public-private development to Tishman Speyer Properties, a private real estate developer, which in turn sold the property to Blackstone Group LP and Ivanhoe Cambridge in 2015. What was once an oasis of affordable housing for working class New Yorkers now rents one-bedroom apartments at an average cost of $3,200 a month, arguably well above a middle-income salary. Its current residents include a large student population that is 71 percent white. Tenants rant on Yelp about “cackling laughter” and the “overpoweringly pungent odor of AWFUL sun baking manure/fertilizer.”
In 2015, NYCHA itself sparked the rumors when it announced its “NextGeneration” initiative, a 10-year plan that seeks to “preserve and protect NYCHA” by, amongst other things, creating public/private partnerships that will help fund repairs. Through that initiative, the housing authority has sold some of the parks and playgrounds at the Holmes Towers on the Upper East Side to private developers. The fears were compounded last year when the agency confirmed it was seeking private landlords in a to manage more than 60,000 NYCHA units across the five boroughs, again using the much-dreaded term “public-private partnership” used to describe the original arrangement for Stuyvesant Town.
“I think this really is the first step to privatizing the entire system,” said William Lee, a 29-year-old former tenant of the Smith Houses in the Lower East Side. “Once you give the go-ahead to private developers once, the floodgates are open.” Loray Hodge, a former member of the Association Board of her NYCHA building, sees “more shadiness” in HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s appointment of Bart Schwartz to lead federal oversight of NYCHA. Schwartz has ties to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose fiscally conservative policies during his 7-year tenure from 1994 to 2001 favored handing over management of some public housing to private developers.
“Once you give the go-ahead to private developers once, the floodgates are open.”- William Lee, former tenant of the Smith Houses
Another resident at the LaGuardia Houses, 33-year-old Cherethia Gipson, has lived in public housing since her early teens. She told me in a telephone interview that she had never paid much attention to the conditions of the places where she’s lived until two years ago, when her son Isaiah was born. At that point, the little things she once ignored—the smelly halls, the noisy neighbors—began to bother her. Her biggest worry now is the news that several children at the Tompkins Houses just across the East River tested positive for lead, a poison linked to developmental brain damage in children. She also worries that the door in her building, 75 Rutgers Street, doesn’t lock. Any non-resident can just walk in an out with a hard-enough yank on the handle. She’s called management about fixing the door several times, she said, but the answer is always the same: “We’ll get to it soon.” Her first call was in August of 2018.
During our most recent conversation, Gipson said she has a recurring nightmare. In it, she is walking down the stairs with her baby and a homeless person mugs her and absconds with her child. “When I started to become hyper-aware of all the problems, I couldn’t un-see it,” she told me. “I need to get out of here eventually. If not for my sake, for Isaiah’s.”
The stairwell of 75 Rutgers Street, in the LaGuardia Housing complex
Younger tenants may not be able to imagine a NYCHA that was functional, safe, and desirable, but the demise of public housing was far from an inevitability. During its first two decades, public housing in New York City was lauded as proof that government-run apartments could compete with the very best of the private sector.
NYCHA was created in the 1930s with the progressive dreams of the five-foot-two Republican mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who believed it was possible for blue-collar worker to have a high quality of life. He promoted the vision through his aphorism that “only a well-fed, well-housed and well-schooled people can enjoy the blessings of liberty.”
An unlikely alliance of city planner Robert Moses and socialists appalled by the overcrowding of tenement slums framed NYCHA as a solution to severe poverty and overcrowding. By giving low-income tenants bigger spaces and more privacy, urban planners believed they would prevent crime and disease, a popular proposition among upper-class New Yorkers. Until the late 1960s, NYCHA tenants were vetted for social standing, job stability and even personality. The plan received overwhelming public support.
During this time, the continued popularity of apartments in public housing proved that management in NYCHA buildings was both powerful and respected; Moses insisted that “heavy, militaristic-type staffing was an essential element of order in public enterprises.” Poor housekeeping prompted evictions and up to one-third of NYCHA staff lived in the buildings they helped manage.
Several decades later in the 1970s, the demographics of the city began to change. In the decade between 1968 and 1978, the global economic crisis eliminated half a million industrial jobs in New York City and many working-class whites moved to the suburbs. In 1975, with the blow to the city’s tax revenues and a lack of working-class jobs then Mayor Abraham Beame released this statement:
I have been advised by the comptomptroller that the City of New York has insufficient cash on hand to meet debt obligations due today. This constitutes the default we have struggled to avoid.
With no money to pay much of its staff, NYCHA employees walked out or were fired. As the author Nicholas Bloom describes in his book, Public Housing That Worked, the strict vetting process for tenants was relaxed to fill vacancies and the heavy policing that had once prevented vandalism in NYCHA buildings stopped. A tight system that initially excluded people on welfare, began to accept the most desperate and dysfunctional into its buildings. Bloom teaches social science at the New York Institute of Technology.
In a telephone interview, Bloom said he believed the lower social status of the mostly Latinx, Chinese and Black residents, helped justify the defunding of NYCHA. “It’s complicated,” he said. “But there was definitely a feedback loop aspect to it; disadvantaged communities came into public housing at the same time that NYCHA was receiving less public money. This helped create the racialized idea that black and brown residents brought down a once-functioning, majority-white public housing.”
Today, some critics are quick to point out how NYCHA housing resembles the slums it once sought to replace. But not Olga Torres, who loves her three-bedroom NYCHA apartment at 93rd Street and First Avenue and feels like the richest woman alive, paying $900 a month in rent. From her on the 23rd floor windows, she can make out the silhouettes of the residents in the Vitre four blocks away, where apartments sell for $2 million.
Torres, who is 73, keeps her home tidy and parquet floors shining. The centerpiece of her living room is a 32-inch flat screen TV flanked by a rack of CDs that include Cheo Feliciano’s 1976 album “The Singer.” We first met on chilly day in mid-October and Torres, who is four-foot seven with a slight forward slouch, was sitting on her black leather sofa and staring out of her window, watching the sun set behind the Ward’s Island Bridge. An intense craving for her favorite tea biscuits, Goya Marias, suddenly overcame her. She slipped into her lavender coat and applied a crimson lipstick, readying herself for the nearby Key Food Supermarket before we headed to the elevator, Torres walking with a slight limp.
Once we get to the hallway, Torres furrowed her brows and pointed out the familiar half-crumpled printer paper taped to the wall:
EMERGENCY NOTICE FROM THE NEW YORK CITY HOUSING AUTHORITY.
BROKEN ELEVATORS UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.
She sighed, kneeled to adjust her feet in the heels of her white slip-on loafers, and said, “I hope you brought your good shoes.”
The economic contradictions on Torres’s street are striking. Less than a block away from the Stanley Isaacs Houses are The Brittany Luxury Apartments (foreground), where one-bedrooms rent for around $2,000 a month.
The economic contradictions on Torres’s street are striking. Less than a block away from the Stanley Isaacs Houses are The Brittany Luxury Apartments (foreground), where one-bedrooms rent for around $2,000 a month.
At the Stanley Isaacs Houses, a 311 search reveals hundreds of complaints in recent weeks, ranging from reports of broken water pipes to broken heaters. Torres told me that this is the fifth or sixth time the new elevators, replaced only two years ago for $2.7 million—have stopped working this year. Last January, HUD ranked the Holmes Towers and Isaacs Houses, both in the same complex, the 13th worst managed housing projects in the country.
For Torres, with her limp and incipient joint problems, every elevator break down means a painful and potentially dangerous trip down 23 flights of stairs.
The two elevators were replaced in 2017 for $2.7 million after they kept breaking, but Torres tells me they still break.
As we make our way down on foot, Torres covers the lower half of her face with a handkerchief, embarrassed and apologizing for the building’s condition as if she were at fault. She walks slowly, clinging to the handrail and pauses to catch her breath every few steps. I ask if she thinks living in the project is negatively affecting her health. “No,” she tells me. “If anything, it’s keeping me active.”
Torres has lived in the Isaacs Towers for 40 years and is quick to defend the building she calls home; she counters many of her own critiques with compliments and likes to point out that other housing developments are “much, much worse.” She oozes optimism. And yet, Isaacs Houses has as many horror stories as most other NYCHA projects. In 1973, a few years before Torres moved into the building, a burglar stabbed an 84-year-old woman to death; in 2002, a 62-year old woman was murdered in the same way.
Torres lights up every time she talks about her neighborhood or her early years in the United States. She arrived in New York City from her native Puerto Rico when she was six years old, with her aunt Jovita LaFontaine and three cousins. In 1957, when Torres was 13, Jovita got sick and died suddenly. Devastated, Torres moved back to the small mountain town of Cayey in Puerto Rico, where she lived with her mother for two years. There, she Isabelino Torres, “a handsome light-skinned” Puerto Rican, she said, with slicked-back hair, a man who sang “Querebe” by Trio Los Condes on his way to work every morning. Torres found him intriguing and one morning, from her second-story window, she called out to tell Isabelino how beautiful his eyes were. He responded by asking if she would like to be his girlfriend. She said yes.
Torres convinced Isabelino to move back to New York with her and the couple got married at the Holy Agony Church on 101st Street and 3rd Avenue in 1966. At the time of their marriage, Torres was 21.
In their first years as young married adults in New York, the couple sublet multiple tenement apartments with family members and friends throughout the Upper West Side and Harlem. In the years leading up to their move to the Isaacs Houses, Torres gave birth to four children and in 1977, a fire in her building damaged their water pipes and the family was forced to leave their building. The couple decided this was an ideal time to move into a brand new apartment.
In 1978, public housing was considered more desirable than most of the city’s middle-class apartments and the vetting process for tenants was still rigorous. Torres filled out and sent repeated applications and was rejected every time, until she decided to write an appeal by letter to then mayor John V. Lindsay for the couple to receive permission to move in to the complex at a time when few tenants of color were living in public housing. To Torres’s surprise, Lindsay sent a representative to her tenement apartment in Yorkville. “He asked me why I wanted to move,” Torres recalled. “And I just told him: ‘I want more privacy!'”
Torres keeps pictures of her wedding day and of her mother (center), who died in 2008, in her wallet.
As a result, Torres, her husband and their four children, were placed in the three-bedroom apartment they still occupy. In those years, the fading tiles of her kitchen were impeccably glazed and her bathroom, with the toilet that now clogs two or three times a month, was state-of-the-art. She felt like she was living her own special version of the American Dream, where all she had to do was ask for what she wanted. When the Torres family moved in, they were the only non-white family on their floor. Now, the majority of their neighbors are Puerto Rican, Dominican and African American.
Torres is among the last generation of NYCHA tenants who remembers a time when Public Housing worked. She is part of a growing group of residents that the city government has branded NORCs, or Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities, both determined and resigned to spending the rest of their lives in the projects they have inhabited for so long.
In many ways, they represent the future of public housing residents, who are increasingly older New Yorkers. Younger people, like the Torres family back in 1978, are less likely to favor the projects for their housing long-term, seeing them instead as an interim solution, a stepping stone, not a permanent place to settle.
Among the elders living in New York public housing, Torres considers herself luckier than most. She has Isabelino and their son Fernando, who is 51, to look after her. Still her extended family worries about the worsening infrastructure and other dangers in the building.
Arnold’s concerns are not misplaced. Vernice Tina, a 67-year-old resident of the Marcy Houses in Bedford-Stuyvesant, told me that when her elevators break, she only leaves her 17th floor apartment in an emergency. Maria Soler, who is 77, lives on the sixth floor of a Mott Haven building in the Bronx. She said she once got stuck in an elevator for five minutes and had a minor panic attack. “I self-diagnosed with PTSD,” she said “I have nightmares about it and haven’t used the elevator in three years.”
Torres tries to stay optimistic. “I’m in a place where I just accept things,” she said. “But it’s still important to try, because having hope helps me to keep going.” She has been politically active as developments continue to engulf the land around the Isaacs-Holmes Towers. In 2015, she rallied against a waste management facility on the banks of the East River a block away. A year after that, she protested the 48-story luxury Fetner Properties building alongside several of her neighbors that will replace a much-loved playground in the middle of the complex through the NextGeneration initiative mentioned above. That tower is currently being developed by Fetner Properties, a real estate company whose buildings include the pompously named Victory in Midtown Manhattan, where one-bedroom apartments start at $3,600 a month. That’s nearly four times what Torres pays for her three-bedroom. The development is part of NYCHA’s “NextGeneration” initiative, a 10-year plan launched in 2015 that seeks to “preserve and protect NYCHA” by, amongst other things, creating public/private partnerships that will help fund repairs.
Torres and the waste management plant behind her, just across the highway from the Isaacs/Holes Towers. Once completed, the plant will process 1,300 tons of trash on an average weekday.
It took us a minute to catch our breaths when Torres and I reach the lobby. My thighs were sore and I could only imagine how Torres felt, although she did not complain. Suddenly, she whipped a small swiss army knife out of her left pocket and laughed when I look at her, confused. “You’re lucky I didn’t have to use this today,” she said. “I carry it sometimes to scare the homeless people who hang out on the stairs.”
It’s the sort of comment that worries Torres’s 21-year-old granddaughter, Ashley Arnold, a student at NYU.”I worry about her all the time,” she said. “She’s getting older and I don’t know if she’ll be able to walk down all those stairs for much longer every time the elevators break.”
Stepping out of the lobby of her building, Torres pointed out the Isaacs Center, a facility expressly for seniors in the middle of the complex. Inside it was immaculate, almost sterile, with a large mural of a Puerto Rican flag and cheerful depictions of quotidian city life. The enormous recreation room, with views of the East River and Randall’s Island, hosts monthly birthday celebrations for NYCHA tenants. When I visited the November birthday celebrations, 65 residents were dancing to the Electric Slide and enjoying slices of vanilla cake. The center receives private funding from donors such as Goldman Sachs and holds daily activities open to the public.
Torres does not use any of these services. “Maybe I’ll go there when I’m eighty,” she said, laughing. “I think to me, being helped by a complete stranger would feel like I’m giving up. And I still got a whole lotta fight in me.”
Torres is not alone in declining to take advantage of the services NYCHA provides. According to a 2010 report, tenants of color, specifically Latinx residents, are the least likely out of all of the elderly to use senior services provided by public housing. The report cites the culture of some Latin American countries, which emphasize family ties and support, as part of the reason that residents like Torres are reluctant or even embarrassed to seek help outside of their kinship networks.
George Ennis, an intern at the Isaacs Center, confirmed that he has had trouble convincing some Latinx residents to attend the Center’s events more frequently. “Particularly if their English isn’t great,” Ennis said. “They hang around for a few minutes, look uncomfortable and leave.”
In addition, although NYCHA offers health and social services to older tenants, several of the residents I spoke to were unsure of how to access those services or had never looked into what was available because they assumed they did not78 qualify.
“I don’t want to use their services simply because I don’t trust the system,” Patricia Peterson, a 78-year-old woman who lives in the Queensbridge Houses said. “If they can’t fix the mold, how are they going to help me in other ways? As long as I have a living family member near me, I will wait until I trust NYCHA with my life.”
Other tenants, however, told me they greatly appreciated the social net. The Authority offers a variety of services to older tenants, from programs that assign social workers to residents to prevent “social isolation, victimization, and unnecessary or premature institutionalization in nursing homes” to centers where residents can go for inexpensive medical exams. Nearly a third of public housing residents who are 65 and older suffer from diabetes, and access to monthly checkups can be a lifeline. Tameka Speight of the Williamsburg Houses told me that her 83-year-old diabetic mother uses the senior services every month to check her blood pressure.
Out of 17 elderly residents and family members I interviewed, I got the impression that whether or not people used the authority’s services was mostly a matter of luck. Some developments, such as the Isaacs Houses, have integrated senior centers; most do not. Some complexes have good building managers who make tenants aware of the available services; many do not. Some tenants have good neighbors; others not so much.”If it wasn’t for the family upstairs, who explained to us how to use those services, we would have never known about them,” Speight said “Maybe we wouldn’t even be checking my mother’s blood pressure so often.”
When it comes to the inability to access health services, older NYCHA tenants are not the only ones affected. A report by the Montefiore Medical Center found that in areas where public housing is more concentrated, 17 percent of children suffered from asthma, more than two times the city’s average. For some adults, the daily discomforts of living in public housing can take serious mental and emotional tolls.
Gio Garcia got a full scholarship to study dramatic writing at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. For housing, the university’s dorms at $8,260 for the academic year were out of the question so he rented a closet-sized windowless room in Jackson Heights, using his savings from a summer of lifeguarding at the college gym to cover the rent. That is until the November check was due. “Before that, I never thought about how homelessness happened to people,” Garcia said. “But for me, there was no warning or preparation, it happened from one day to the next.”
Garcia took to sleeping on alternate nights either on the lower level of Bobst Library, which is open 24 hours, or at the apartments of hookups he met on Grindr, the gay messaging app. There were panic attacks, way too much alcohol and an exhaustion that left him numb. He couldn’t tell his mother. She would have forced him to drop out of school and return to their home in Arizona and he was too embarrassed to tell his friends.
Then one day a Grindr contact happened to ask him where he was living. When Garcia told the man he had no place to live “he told me that as gay Latino men, we had to look out for each other.” In fact, the National Coalition for the Homeless reports that nearly 40 percent of homeless people in the United States are LGBTQ. The man said he he had a spare room he was willing to rent to Garcia for cheap. “But he never told me his spare room was in NYCHA.”
From 2016 until February of this year, Garcia shared a unit with his landlord in one of the 20 six-story buildings known as the Vladeck Houses, bordered to the north by Grand Street, to the south by Water Street and the East River. His entry into NYCHA housing circumvented the nearly 149,000 families on the waiting list for an apartment. Although Garcia met many of the requirements needed to live in public housing—he was raised in a low-income household by a single mother in Tucson and he made less than $1,000 a month—it was unlikely that he was going to get into public housing on his own. Even when a tenant gets approved, he or she may have to wait years until an apartment becomes available and NYCHA prioritizes tenants who are in domestic abuse situations. In addition, because he was never a registered tenant, Garcia does not qualify for the insurance, and thus the mental health services, the city provides for people in public housing.
By some estimates, Garcia was just one of approximately 200,000 “ghost tenants,” residents who live in in illicitly leased rooms in public housing,a figure based on the disproportionately high amounts of trash collected at the buildings. These individuals are not officially registered and account in part for the overcrowding in NYCHA buildings, They tend to pay their landlords in cash, as Garcia did, or through the mobile payment app Venmo. Unlike Garcia, they are often family members or close friends of registered tenants. The unregistered tenants make up at least a third of all people living in public housing and, if taken into consideration, inflate the population of NYCHA to nearly 600,000.
Garcia, like many other ghost tenants, came into public housing as a last resort and describes the Authority as both a lifeline and a curse. “It was a great deal, and I was infatuated with it at first,” Garcia says. He paid $800 a month for a two-hundred square foot room in a neighborhood where the average rent for a similar sized unit is nearly triple that. “But then it began to feel more and more like I was part of a scam.”
Garcia also said that his depression worsened in his three years living in NYCHA, feelings he said his living situation exacerbated. Although the links between mental illness and living in NYCHA are not clear-cut, a survey of five public housing buildings in 2016 found that 46 percent of public housing tenants have fair or poor mental health, compared to 10 percent of all New Yorkers.
Garcia was not allowed to have guests or speak to the neighbors and if someone asked who he was, he was to say that he was the landlord’s nephew, visiting town for a couple weeks. Every three months or so, when a NYCHA contractor would visit the apartment, the landlord required Garcia to lock himself in his bedroom and keep quiet. It wasn’t the apartment that drove him away, and at the beginning, Garcia felt that hiding himself from management was a small price to pay for living in Manhattan, just a thirty-minute walk to NYU.The fear and secrecy became unbearable, and in the last two months, so did his relationship with the landlord.
Garcia’s only complaint about the apartment itself was the elevators, which were slow and broke down at least three times a year. He told me that the building was in great condition and my visit in February bore that out. A 311 search of the calls from his building revealed mostly noise complaints. …
The Vladeck Houses are named after the Belarusian Jewish socialist Baruch Charney Vladeck, who immigrated to New York in 1908 after he escaped exile in Siberia for conducting a “radical study circle” alongside a group of intellectuals keen on overthrowing Tsar Nicholas II. Starting in the 1960s, the buildings had large Chinese and Puerto Rican populations whom a 1995 New York Times article described as “old and poor.” Despite the deterioration of many units, long-time residents with deep-rooted ties to their communities have remained.
Garcia genuinely loved the community that living in the Vladeck Houses had given him, something he didn’t find in the mostly affluent student body at NYU. He described a lovely 83-year-old Puerto Rican woman, a neighbor, who would knock on their apartment door once a week to bring them enormous plates of plantains covered in tinfoil, paired with a small plastic container with the special green sauce, the recipe for which she declined to disclose.
Today, Garcia talks about that period of his life in public housing with ambivalence; he said that for some time, his room at the Vladeck Houses felt like a real home, the kind of refuge he had longed for, with a cozy living room and a small kitchen where meals of rice and beans were often on the stove and the atmosphere was congenial. Then he learned that his landlord had been leasing his spare room out for years and over-charging tenants. Investigating further, he learned that rather than the promised even split, Garcia was paying $800 of the total $1.100 in monthly rent.
William Wu-Chen, a real estate agent for the real estate company Nooklyn, told me that Garcia had no legal recourse in that situation. Without a lease or a contract, McCoy was technically allowed to charge Garcia whatever amount he wished. Garcia decided to report his landlord to management, but the person he turned out to be his landlord’s friend. The andlordold gave Garcia a month to get out. With no place in New York he could find to live affordably, he left school and returned to Arizona. A NYCHA application would have taken many months if not years.
“I think in the end, it’s going to be better for my mental health,” Garcia told me, as he packed the his last suitcase this past March. “This city isn’t made for someone like me. You can’t be poor and mentally ill in New York City. It will simply destroy you.”
Hours of conversations with public housing residents helped me understand the inability of the thousands of NYCHA tenants to pressure the city to improve their living conditions. I visited the Chinese Staff and Workers Association, an non-profit located a few blocks from the Vladeck Houses in a navy blue iron-cast building on Grand Street. The association fights gentrification and protests on behalf of public housing residents in the Lower East Side.
I asked Zishun Li, a longtime resident of Chinatown and community organizer at the Workers Association, whether NYCHA tenants in the area were active in the local activist community. “There are some NYCHA tenants, but not a lot,” he said. “And I completely understand why they wouldn’t organize. Many are mostly trying to get by in the day-to-day; I think it’s extremely difficult to worry about systemic change when you don’t even know if you’ll have heat in the middle of winter.”
Kevin Beck is a sociology professor at the University of California at San Diego who has written about New York City public housing. “There is evidence,” he writes, “that public housing may inhibit social organization or the ability of residents to develop social norms, realize collective goals, and maintain social control.” He adds that segregating poor residents into confined buildings prevents them from interacting with people of other socioeconomic backgrounds and promotes indifference by other New York residents, who do not have to see or know about the living conditions at NYCHA, making mass political action more difficult.
Li said that some NYCHA tenants refrain from protesting for a more practical reason: fear. Unlike Torres, 12 of the tenants I interviewed said they were too afraid to be seen protesting, concerned that the city could take away their apartments.
The culture of mistrust and lack of cohesion among tenants was a recurrent theme in my conversations, as was a tendency on the parts of some of those I spoke with to speak ill of fellow residents in their attempt to distinguish themselves from less desirable neighbors. “I don’t feel like I belong here,” said Hidron, the man who lives in the LaGuardia Houses. “This is where I eat breakfast and sleep. But these are not my people.”
Social tensions aside, addressing the potentially life-threatening conditions that so many tenants endure is clearly the greater need.
When I walked down all those flights with Olga Torres last October, I asked her if she had thought about what she would do in the case of a fire, like the June 2017 blaze in London that engulfed all of Grenfell Tower, killing 72 residents of a public housing building. Our descent took nearly 15 minutes. On the way down, I spotted four dusty fire extinguishers and only a couple fire detectors that looked at least a decade old. “I don’t want to think about it, and I pray a fire never happens,” she said. “But I can tell you now that it would be very, very, bad.”
As I write this, details of a fire in the early hours of May 8 are unfurling. A fifth floor apartment in the Frederick E. Samuels Houses, a NYCHA building in Harlem burned to a pulp, killing the six people inside, including four children. Torres’s apartment is three-and-a-half miles away. The city’s fire commissioner, Daniel A. Nigro, reported that the blaze took hours to quell. In a statement, he noted that as firefighters entered the building, they couldn’t hear an alarm.