The city’s top watchdog called on NYCHA Monday to fix long-squalid conditions in many of its 172,000 apartments — predicting public housing could become a Petri dish for the coronavirus as cold weather sets in.

Citing THE CITY’s reporting detailing poor ventilation in developments that have recorded high rates of COVID-19, Stringer accused NYCHA of sitting on millions of federal dollars that could address this and other critical problems as a possible second coronavirus wave approaches.

“We are on the brink of an emergency,” Stringer told reporters, standing outside the Martin Luther King Jr. Towers in Harlem.

“Winter is coming, folks. But we have no plan, we have no information, no accountability from NYCHA on how they intend to protect tenants from a second wave of COVID-19 in the colder months,” added Stringer, who is running for mayor.

‘Money on the Table’

As with many NYCHA issues, the question of how to pay for upgrades is key. Stringer said his office had discovered a huge pot of money that’s been available for months but has yet to be aggressively tapped.

Stringer noted that as of June 30, the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) had awarded NYCHA $3.1 billion in grants to repair damage at 35 developments caused by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. As of this week, NYCHA had spent only 59% of that.

“They are leaving money on the table in the midst of a pandemic,” he said.

Stringer argued that if NYCHA had spent all the funds, the Sandy-damaged developments would be better prepared for the potential second wave of COVID. THE CITY documented the slow pace of this Sandy-related spending in 2019.

NYCHA officials say the money can only be used to repair specific hurricane-related damage at a limited number of developments. 

Stringer also noted that at the beginning of the year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded NYCHA $300 million in grants. But by the end of June, NYCHA had spent only 78% of the money.

Fan Fix Floundering

As New York City faces rising infections and hospitalizations in some areas after greatly reducing both from their spring peak, more details have emerged about the particular vulnerabilities NYCHA’s tenants face.

Two weeks ago, THE CITY reported that all but two of 47 NYCHA developments that logged COVID-19 infection rates above the city average rely on aging exhaust ventilation systems often unable to create adequate airflow in bathrooms and kitchens.

A worker installs a fan on a Wald Houses roof in the East Village. Credit: NYCHA

Experts say that can contribute to the spread of the virus indoors, and allows buildup of moisture that spurs mold growth. Mold, in turn, exacerbates respiratory conditions like asthma, which may make a person more vulnerable to COVID’s ravages.

NYCHA had promised to fix all its malfunctioning roof fans by May 2019, but pushed the deadline back to June 2021 with a plan to replace the units. That work is now way behind schedule after a contractor the authority hired turned out to have a problematic safety and financial history.

In a letter sent Monday to Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYCHA Chairperson Gregory Russ  stressing “the urgent need to protect NYCHA residents,” Stringer cited THE CITY’s reporting on the stalled roof fan replacement effort. 

Public Housing Micro-Clusters

Speaking to the press, he noted that many of the affected housing developments are inhabited by senior citizens. 

He also pointed out that infections recorded in those buildings in the spring were higher than current rates in so-called “red-zone” neighborhoods where the state has shut down schools and businesses.

“At some of the NYCHA senior-only developments, infection rates reached seven residents per 100 residents — more than double the infection rates we’re seeing right now in the micro-cluster zones,” he said. “They were micro-cluster zones before there were micro-cluster zones.” 

Stringer also brought up another issue THE CITY reported on in August: a wave of elevator outages that was forcing tenants into crowded lifts. The comptroller said his office discovered NYCHA had experienced 3,600 elevator outages in September alone.

“Broken elevators will force tenants to crowd into the functional ones, preventing social distancing,” he said.

A pair of broken elevators stranded Jacquelyne Pierre in the lobby of her NYCHA building in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, after she tried to return home from kidney dialysis. Credit: Courtesy of Eileen Boyce

And he contends NYCHA ignored an audit he released in June asserting that the authority was inadequately tracking and repairing problems in its ailing heating systems. 

In an emailed response to THE CITY’s questions, Barbara Brancaccio, a NYCHA spokesperson, didn’t address Stringer’s concerns about ventilation and elevator problems that could frustrate efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19.

But she did contend that Stringer is ignoring many steps NYCHA has already taken to address heat system issues.

She said the number of heat and hot water outages has dropped 35% over the last year, and that the response time for fixing them has improved from an average of nine hours to eight hours.

“NYCHA disagrees with the comptroller’s assessment, as it entirely dismisses the improved processes, increased resources, and demonstrable improvements the Authority has made over the past two years,” Brancaccio wrote.