Additional reporting by Sam Rabiyah
Superintendent Will Morales worked his way up from doorman to handyman in an Upper East Side co-op building before securing a coveted position as a live-in super at a co-op in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park.
“I come with a Park Avenue attitude to Brooklyn,” Morales said, an attitude he developed after working more than a decade in former Mayor Rudy Giulani’s East 66th Street building. (“Nice guy, nice tipper, quiet person.”)
In Ditmas Park, Morales takes pride in his daily routines; polishing the windows and floors, and greeting residents each day. But his patience has been tested since the Department of Sanitation pushed back the earliest time trash bags may be placed on the curb for pickup to 8 p.m beginning on April Fool’s Day of this year. For as long as anyone can remember, 4 p.m. had been the time building staff started hauling out bags.
Taking out the trash for his 70-unit building is a three-hour affair, meaning the later set-out time tacks extra hours onto his shifts, three days a week.
“I’m working an extra nine hours a week. I’m working an extra whole day,” he said. His building co-op has refused to pay him for extra hours, so he makes a point of cutting out early on Fridays to prove a point.
“I had to do something to make myself feel better,” he said.
Morales’ frustrations are not unique. A group of building superintendents with a group called NYC Building Supers, not affiliated with any union, are planning a series of escalating actions – protests and calls to throw out trash at the old 4 p.m. setout time – beginning in October, with the goal of drawing attention to their plight.
Dominick Romeo, 46, a third-generation super who took over his father’s buildings at age 16, and currently manages a building in Chelsea, is the ringleader behind the efforts.
“Plenty of supers [are] worked to death and walked all over. We can’t keep getting screwed like this any more,” he said. “What it comes down to is now we don’t have a life.”
Vincent Gragnani, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Sanitation, pointed out that supers who put trash in rodent-proof containers are permitted to take out bins as early as 6 p.m. under the new regulations, and said that the change in take-out hours was crafted in coordination with SEIU 32BJ, the union that represents more than 33,000 supers, porters and other building staff. Buildings with nine units or more also have the option of putting trash out before 7 a.m. if they opt into a morning pickup program.
“The new set-out times incentivize containerization [and] make for cleaner streetscapes,” Gragnani said. “The changes are working, and they were long overdue.”
32BJ SEIU President Kyle Bragg said the labor giant representing many of the city’s residential building workers had pushed for the early morning pick-up alternative, and was working to address workload issues with members at individual buildings as they emerged.
“We secured an agreement that places the city and our members in a better position,” Bragg said.
‘Early-Rat Dinner Special is Over’
Mayor Eric Adams announced the new collection hours last year, as part of his so-called war on rats.
“It made no sense that these garbage bags have remained on the street for such a long period of time,” Adams said in announcing the new policy. “They have become open season for rodents going into these bags, creating a real health problem in our city. That’s four hours fewer than previously.”
“I want to warn the rats,” DSNY Commissioner Jessica Tisch quipped in a press release this April. “This spring, the early-rat dinner special is over.”
The Department of Sanitation has since touted a 45% drop in 311 calls reporting rat sightings in “Rat Mitigation Zones” this summer compared to last, and a 20% drop in those calls citywide this May and June compared to last.
But those gains were offset in part by a surge in 2023’s dog days of July and August.
Overall, this was the second rattiest summer on record, dating back to 2010, and the third straight year with more than 10,000 reported rat sightings from New Yorkers after a decade in which they’d only once hit 7,500.
Because rats are nocturnal, experts say that simply setting back the hours of trash setout is unlikely to accomplish much compared to things like putting trash into shared and closed containers — the subject of a current year-long waste pilot program — and a new requirement for food-related businesses to put their trash in rodent-proof containers.
As Romeo put it, “Rats don’t carry a watch on them and they’re not gonna move to Jersey.”
Shifting the hours “has nothing to do with rats,” he said. “This has everything to do with [people] not seeing the trash on the street when they’re walking home from work.”
‘Walk All Over Us Big Time’
Sanitation officials have conceded as much. Taking questions from Councilmember Erik Bottcher (D-Manhattan) in July, city Rat Czar Kathy Corradi said the set-out hours had been “a real game changer for many New Yorkers and how we think of our streetscape.”
The building supers, however, say that visual improvement has come at their expense.
Jesmond Portelli, 47, the super for eight buildings in the West Village, said he opted for the early morning pick-up option, but that means he starts his shift at 5 a.m. each day to account for different pickup schedules on different blocks .
“They didn’t think, ‘These people have families, these people have lives,’” he said. “Just walk all over us big time.”
Supers who spoke with THE CITY said that building managers and coop board members have been reluctant to invest in plastic bins that would allow them to set out trash starting at 6 p.m. Some said the bins could be easily stolen, while others anticipated further changes to Sanitation pickups down the line and didn’t want to spend money on something that they might not be able to use in the future.
For now, Morales, whose bedroom window overlooks the trash heap, has his own innovative pest-management system. When he can’t sleep, he trains his paintball gun at feasting rats.
“You hear them eating through, and ripping through, and squealing,” he said. “It becomes a nightmare.”
He aims and fires, heading out early in the morning to clean up the paint splattered carcasses.
“My own way of extermination,” he said.