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NYCHA’s Rodent Eviction Campaign Shows Tough Road Ahead for Rat Czar

A court-monitored pledge to halve the number of rodents running rampant in public housing has gone nowhere, even as Adams and his new rat fighter expand ambitions citywide.

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Adams announced the appointment of Kathleen Corradi as the city’s first-ever citywide director of rodent mitigation during a press conference in St. Nicholas Park in Harlem, April 12, 2023.

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Before the mayor’s new rat czar steps up to do battle against the furry opposition, she might want to take a good look at the New York City Housing Authority’s epic struggle to make headway against the rodent hordes.

Under a January 2019 agreement with the federal government, NYCHA leaders promised to reduce the unhealthy and unfortunate impact rats have on so many of the city’s 400,000 public housing tenants and their neighbors.

They vowed to cut NYCHA’s rat population 50% in three years. That didn’t happen.

They committed to speeding up the time it takes to handle inside-the-building rat complaints — yet that interval remains too long.

They have made a strenuous effort to pour concrete caps over dirt-floor basements that serve as ideal locations for rat burrows. But dozens of these dirt floors remain uncapped.

In the interim, the backlog of open pest complaints that has yet to be addressed has begun to spike again after a drop-off during the pandemic.

Last week Mayor Eric Adams announced the appointment of Kathleen Corradi, a top administrator in the public school system, as his official citywide director of rodent mitigation. He identified her target — rattus norvegicus, also known as the common rat, street rat, sewer rat, wharf rat or Norway rat — as “public enemy number one.”

Corradi’s job, according to the mayor, is to work with government agencies, community groups and the private sector to coordinate a campaign that will ultimately “reduce the rat population in New York City.”

“You can’t just deal with one problem and call it a day,” Corradi told the press during an appearance at City Hall last Friday, promising a “science and systems-based approach to reducing New York City’s rodent population.”

Rat Census?

Judging from NYCHA’s experience, it won’t be so easy.

NYCHA’s rat-related promises are spelled out in the January 2019 agreement between the authority, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Manhattan federal prosecutors who documented how NYCHA for years covered up scandalous conditions in so many of its 177,000 public housing apartments. That agreement included the appointment of a federal monitor to oversee NYCHA’s compliance, with a strict timeline for reforms.

One key promise was straightforward: reduce NYCHA’s rat population 50% by Jan. 31, 2022. That promise was based on the idea that NYCHA could somehow establish the actual size of its rat population.

To address this problem, NYCHA press secretary Michael Horgan says the authority counts the number of rat burrows, calculates how many rats are in them, then reduces its rat count each time it eliminates a burrow.

A rat burrow was visible near a playground at the Douglass Houses on the Upper West Side, April 19, 2023.

Greg Smith/THE CITY

Horgan told THE CITY the authority relies on what he said was the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s estimate that there are up to five rats per burrow. He said  that DOHMH had tabulated 6,514 burrows on NYCHA properties; NYCHA multiplied that times five rats per burrow to claim there were 32,750 rats.

Since then, NYCHA says it has cut the number of burrows to 2,728 — and, by that formula, the number of rats to 13,640, a 59% reduction.

But an expert hired by the federal monitor has said that’s only half the story. Pest expert Stephen Kells said that counting burrows addresses only exterior rat populations, not rats inside buildings. Data from tenant complaints and actual inspections must also be factored in, according to Kells.

That has proven to be a challenge. NYCHA first planned to inspect 3,000 randomly selected apartments and extrapolate a rat census from that, but didn’t get started until the first week of February in 2020 — just before the pandemic struck New York.

When COVID-19 ebbed, NYCHA started inspecting and extrapolating again, checking about 2,000 units through early spring 2022. But now the authority is “contemplating performing a second annual census” with 2,000 more units “to measure progress in pest mitigation” during the prior year, according to a November report by the monitor.

And a spokesperson for DOHMH said while the department works with NYCHA to address rat populations through “surveys of rat activity at select developments,” he added: “We do not however estimate the number of rats, as there are far too many variables at any one location.”

The January 2022 deadline came and went, and now the monitor has proposed bringing in Kells to produce a better methodology to come up with a more useful estimate of rats and other vermin, the report states.

That proposal has yet to be approved, so the rat census remains in limbo more than a year after the promised 50% reduction — meaning that NYCHA still doesn’t know what number it’s trying to get to half of.

Rat Complaints Spike

Then there’s the promise to speed up the time it takes to handle resident complaints about what are known as “interior rats” — that is, rats inside NYCHA apartment buildings, as opposed to those rambling around NYCHA grounds.

Under the agreement, NYCHA promised to respond to 75% of interior rat complaints within two business days by the end of 2021. As of November, NYCHA was only able to get to 42% of these priority complaints within the required two days, with an average response time of 4.6 days.

They did manage to make the two-day deadline for tenants deemed “pest sensitive” — that is, residents with asthma and other respiratory illnesses that are exacerbated by pest infestations.

A rat scurries through the Washington Houses in East Harlem, July 22, 2019.

Gabriel Sandoval/THE CITY

Meanwhile, the monitor has raised concerns about what appeared to be a rising number of new and unresolved pending complaints about pests in general, including mice, cockroaches and bedbugs, along with rats.

In November the monitor reported that the monthly backlog of complaints left unresolved for more than 60 days had dropped off dramatically during the pandemic, from about 7,500 to a low of 1,000 mid-2020 when NYCHA suspended responding to all but emergency requests due to COVID.

Inspections resumed in 2021 and then 60-day backlogged cases began to jump dramatically starting in May 2022, reaching nearly 7,500 by October, according to the monitor. “Taking into account both new and active complaints, we believe the level of infestation is growing again,” the monitor wrote.

NYCHA insists that the backlog began diminishing in September, but uses different criteria, including all open pest complaints. That showed a decrease in the overall backlog from a peak of 20,900 last September to 11,600 last week. 

Weapons of Rat Destruction

Other tactics in the war on rats have run into unforeseen obstacles, starting with a commitment to install 8,000 so-called door sweeps, which are metal attachments that prevent rats from slipping under doors into trash compactor rooms. In 2020, the monitor found dozens of those devices had been improperly installed, so the wily rodents could squeeze past them and feast.

After a quick training session, however, NYCHA workers ultimately got the job done right by February 2022, and even installed more door sweeps than were required. 

Michael Horgan, NYCHA’s press secretary, said the authority has “seen a dramatic decrease in the number of rat colonies and burrows” due to several tactics, including installing wire lathing on basement window wells, sealing up cracked sidewalks, adding snap traps, hiring more exterminators and caretakers, and making waste containers more rat-proof.

“This increasingly thorough and concentrated approach to pest mitigation, on top of tested existing efforts, is the path forward for NYCHA, and is representative of the Authority’s ongoing commitment to its residents,” Horgan said.

One area where NYCHA has made progress is capping dirt floors that are in dozens of development basements across the city. The floors are notoriously susceptible to being turned into veritable rat condominiums and make eradication of rats more difficult.

In a January 2021 “action plan” to address all types of pests, NYCHA promised to install concrete “rat caps” in nine developments by June. As of Thursday, NYCHA officials said that had been accomplished. That’s what led to their claim of a 59% reduction in rat burrows citywide.

But plenty of other developments with dirt floors still need to be addressed. NYCHA officials admitted to THE CITY they don’t have a full inventory of how many dirt floors still exist across their 420 developments, but they are planning to cap a 10th development that has a heavy rat infestation. That location has yet to be determined, they say.

And Adams, in announcing his appointment of Corradi, promised funding to cap dirt floors at two more developments, Johnson Houses in East Harlem and Douglass Houses in Harlem.

According to NYCHA, however, work on capping basements at Douglass won’t be complete until spring 2027, while those at Johnson Houses won’t get capped until spring 2028.

But for some residents in the neighborhoods next to these developments, the caps can’t come soon enough.

A tenant of a non-NYCHA apartment building down the street from Douglass recounted for THE CITY multiple interactions with errant rodents that are a regular presence around the trash bins and bags that NYCHA staff leave at all hours on the sidewalk for pickup.

“It’s constant rats with no apparent fear of human beings, leisurely crossing back and forth across the lawn to the trash on the sidewalk,” the resident recalled. “They’re so big and fat.” 

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