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A few days ago, Cindy Perez stepped warily into a tiny, but empty public housing elevator in the Holmes Towers on the Upper East Side for the ride to the lobby from the 23rd floor.
It was the only elevator working in her building. The other lift was, once again, out of service.
A few floors into Perez’s trip, the concept of social distancing became moot when another tenant and her two children crammed inside with her. The quartet now shared the kind of claustrophobic space Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo warn New Yorkers to avoid.
A few floors later the ride stopped, but the door did not open. As minutes passed, a tenant on the outside tried but failed to open the door. Finally, the other woman in the elevator with Perez managed to pry the door open from inside, and all four passengers clambered out and walked the rest of the way to the lobby.
“We’re all in the elevator, four people,” Perez, 45, told THE CITY. “What’s the sense of putting on the gloves and the mask if we’re going in that elevator?”
“It’s really bad when you have only one elevator working,” she added.
Stuck for Days
Perez and her neighbors weren’t the only NYCHA tenants to contend with elevator woes in recent days.
NYCHA has experienced an epidemic to go along with the pandemic: dozens of elevators in developments from the Upper West Side to the South Bronx to the eastern reaches of Queens have been breaking down, sometimes for more than 24 hours, a review of data by THE CITY found.
Between Sunday morning and Wednesday evening, elevators went out of service in 99 buildings at 68 developments across the city.
More than 25,500 of NYCHA’s 400,000 tenants live in those buildings, many of whom are senior citizens or rely on wheelchairs.
Even under normal circumstances, the 3,244 elevators operating across the authority’s aging portfolio are prone to breakdowns. While its 428-employee elevator unit tries to keep up, the steady stream of outages makes their job nearly impossible.
During the coronavirus crisis, fixing outages takes on increased urgency. When there’s no elevator, everybody who is physically capable schleps up and down the narrow staircases. When only one elevator is working, people cram inside.
And while many people are staying primarily in their apartments, the busted elevators impede necessary food shopping and could mean a disaster in cases of medical emergencies.
Meanwhile, many buildings — 1,516 of them — have only a single lift, which means that even when everything is working, the potential for zero social distancing is ever-present.
‘I’m Taking the Stairs’
The recent wave started at 7:41 a.m. Sunday, the data shows, in a Douglass Houses II building on W. 104th St. that 286 tenants call home. One elevator flickered out — and stayed out for 27 hours. A few hours later, another went out at Pomonok Houses in Queens. That one was useless for 24 hours.
And so on, one after another through Wednesday evening: the Butler Houses in The Bronx, out for 23 hours; the East River Houses on the Upper East Side, out for 18 hours; the Linden Houses in East New York, Brooklyn, out for 24 hours.
Perez’s elevator at Holmes Towers — which houses more than 900 tenants in two 25-story towers off First Avenue — went out around 1 a.m. Tuesday and stayed out for 17 hours. The next morning, it shut down again for two hours before going back up at 8:42 a.m.
For Perez, these persistent elevator problems just add to the stress of coping with the pandemic. She worries about an elderly woman on her floor who never leaves her apartment.
After Perez got stuck in the elevator a second time with other tenants, she chose an alternate route.
“I live on the 23rd floor and I’ve been taking the stairs with my dog,” she said. “NYCHA should be putting up a sign: No more than two people.”
‘A Whole Other World’
Holmes Towers’ faulty lifts have been a chronic headache for years. A tenants’ rights group, TakeRoot Justice, has sued the authority, alleging the elevators and other persistent problems violate residents’ rights to live in safe, healthy conditions.
A judge has ordered NYCHA to improve conditions, but the coronavirus has given renewed urgency to making fixes, said Daniel Carpenter-Gold, a staff attorney for the group.
“All these issues are important. They were important before this started, but they are much more important now,” he said. “Things that were an inconvenience for most people, people can be forced to wait [for elevators], now we’re in a whole other world where it’s actually a risk to life.”
And the issues at play in Holmes Towers pervade the authority’s 326 developments, which are now under the watchful eye of a federally appointed monitor brought in after the Manhattan U.S. attorney detailed years of neglect and related cover ups across the authority.
Under the monitor agreement, NYCHA has made a number of promises, from eradicating poisonous lead paint to abating toxic mold. One key vow: upgrading thousands of unreliable elevators.
But that effort has been put on pause during the outbreak of COVID-19, with all planned shutdowns for repairs on hold.
Calls for Two-Person Rule
That cuts both ways: The ultimate goal of replacing aging machines is in limbo, with no restart date in sight. But it has also freed up NYCHA’s army of elevator mechanics to focus exclusively on the wave of unplanned outages.
Over the last three days, although tenants in several buildings endured outages lasting more than 12 hours, several have seen service restored within a couple of hours.
Nevertheless, even a brief outage means tenants will likely be packing inside the ones that still work.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus crisis has triggered a wave of fury from staff required to show up in development offices, as well as maintenance workers made to go into apartments without any protective gear. Hundreds of employees have called in sick, union officials said.
After THE CITY highlighted these issues, officials stepped forward to round up more than 500,000 masks, and NYCHA began allowing some employees to work at home every other day.
To date, NYCHA has encouraged tenants to “work together to keep our families clean and safe,” praising “all you have done to share accurate information with neighbors, follow and promote social distancing and maintain safety precautions throughout our development.”
But it has not made any effort to encourage tenants to practice social distancing in elevators by allowing only two at a time — a practice many private sector building management firms have embraced.
Perez is a big fan of the two-person rule.
“Holmes has always had problems,” she says. “We’re paying $1,000 [rent] and I don’t mind paying. But come on, let’s make this happen.”
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