Trapped at Home in the Pandemic With Mold and a Leaky Roof

Dec 15, 2020
In The News

Aida Corporan has avoided the coronavirus by hunkering down in her apartment at the Bailey Houses, a public housing complex in the Bronx.

But she cannot get away from the health threat inside her own home: mold.

Ms. Corporan, who suffers from artery and kidney problems, said heavy rains have leaked into her bathroom from her building’s dilapidated roof and left behind mold on the walls that cannot be scrubbed away.

“It’s a shame we have to live like this,” said Ms. Corporan, 76. “It’s hard.”

The pandemic has trapped many poor New Yorkers in miserable living conditions in the city’s public housing system, the largest in the nation with 400,000 tenants, most of whom are people of color.

While better-off families have upgraded their homes with sleek new kitchens, work studios and pricey Peloton bikes to isolate in relative comfort, many public housing tenants have been forced to cope with mold, broken elevators and rundown playgrounds. Some have even been stuck at home with no heat or cooking gas.

And with winter descending and the coronavirus surging again, there are likely to be fewer chances to escape dismal apartments.

Though the New York City Housing Authority has long struggled to keep up with repairs and maintenance at public housing developments, its backlog has soared during the pandemic to 474,790 open work orders in November from 375,310 work orders in March, according to the authority’s records.

In contrast, there was a smaller increase in open work orders in the months before the pandemic: 373,910 in February compared with 336,290 in November 2019, according to data available in records published online.

In addition, during the pandemic, the average number of days to complete repairs — a measure of the level of service — has also increased between November and March to 224 days from 156 days.

“The problems are getting worse,” said Daniel Barber, 51, the chairman of a citywide council for public-housing tenant association leaders who lives in the Andrew Jackson Houses in the South Bronx.

When tenants call housing authority workers for needed repairs, he said, “they’ll take the call and a ticket gets created, but then no one is actually going to do the work. People are being told everything is being deferred by Covid.”

Housing authority officials said they scaled back nonemergency repairs and maintenance beginning in March to protect employees and tenants by reducing contact and time spent in individual units. But since then, they said they have taken steps to resume some nonemergency work — emergency repairs have continued throughout the pandemic — that will help reduce the backlog.

“Every New Yorker’s home should be a comfortable and safe place to ride out a global pandemic, public housing included,” said Laura Feyer, a spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio. “NYCHA is working to address these issues while taking all federal, state, and local public health guidelines into consideration for the safety of residents and staff.”

Two years ago, the city announced an ambitious plan to fix public housing, including renovating thousands of units and taking aggressive measures to address heat and mold problems.

Public housing tenants routinely complain about squalid living conditions, including frequent hot water outages, broken elevators, lead paint and rats. The problems have worsened in recent decades as the housing authority has struggled to get adequate federal funding to maintain its more than 300 developments.

Housing authority officials say that the cost of needed repairs to the city’s public housing totals $40 billion, and in July, they unveiled a blueprint that outlined strategies for improving and stabilizing the developments.

“NYCHA needs capital to address ongoing issues in its aging housing portfolio, which has suffered due to decades of federal disinvestment,” said Rochel Leah Goldblatt, a spokeswoman for the housing authority. “We are working toward innovative solutions to raise that capital while focusing on the health and safety of our residents and staff.”

The housing authority is overseen by a federal monitor as part of a 2019 agreement following a sweeping, multiyear federal investigation of the city’s public housing system, which documented false claims that apartments had been inspected for lead.

The federal monitor, Bart M. Schwartz, has expressed concern about the housing authority’s growing backlog of work orders during the pandemic and has urged the authority to restart routine repairs and chip away at the backlog.

The most common work orders that have not been addressed are requests to fix paint, walls, ceilings, mold, kitchen cabinets and lead, though housing authority officials refused to provide specifics about the various categories.

Victor Bach, a housing policy analyst for the Community Service Society of New York, a nonprofit social services agency, said the deteriorating day-to-day conditions at some developments have added another layer of stress for tenants already worried about the pandemic.

“The pandemic obviously makes a bad situation even worse,” he said. “Residents are dealing with that — and very, very difficult living conditions.”

At Campos Plaza II, a public housing complex in Manhattan, tenants have complained of worsening leaks, broken building door locks, rats and rotting odors from exterminations, and mold and unfinished kitchen repairs at an on-site community center that was used for child care programs.

In Queens, dozens of residents at the Astoria Houses were forced to cook on hot plates for months after the cooking gas was turned off in September to fix a leak. The problem was not the fixed until December, tenants said.

“These repairs are particularly important during the Covid-19 crisis as New Yorkers remain stuck indoors,” said Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, a Democrat, who called on the housing authority to expedite repairs at the Astoria Houses and Campos Plaza II, which are both in her district.

Ms. Maloney recently visited Astoria Houses with a community organization, Queens Together, which gave out crockpots to residents. Another community group, Queens Liberation Project, raised more than $8,000 in donations through a social media campaign to help prepare and deliver hot meals to tenants.

At the Bailey Houses, tenants said that rainwater pools on the roof and trickles down into their apartments. Water marks stain the walls. Paint bubbles up on damp ceilings. Mold invades bathrooms and kitchens.

After hearing the complaints, State Assemblyman Victor M. Pichardo, a Democrat whose district includes the development, visited the roof with tenants to see for himself. He then secured $3 million in state capital funding to fix the roof, presenting a ceremonial check to tenants in 2018.

But nearly two years later, the roof is still leaking.

Housing authority officials said they could not start the roof repairs at the Bailey Houses until they actually received the $3 million from the state Dormitory Authority of the State of New York, which just released the money in November.

But the dormitory authority said the housing authority could have started the roof repairs earlier and received reimbursements afterward.

“It’s just bureaucratic finger-pointing, and it’s frustrating,” Mr. Pichardo said. “If you’re asking people to stay home because of the pandemic and they’re living in terrible conditions, how is that fair to them?”

For Ms. Corporan and her neighbors, their lives are tougher because of the delay in fixing the roof. “I try to cope with everything going around me, but it’s not easy,” she said, adding that she would be spending the holidays by herself in a depressing apartment.

In Tasha Terry’s apartment, paint is peeling off the wall in her teenage daughter’s bedroom from the constant roof leaks. She sprays the wall with bleach to cover up the dank smell, but adds that there is nothing else that can be done until the roof is fixed.

“I try not to let it stress me out,” said Ms. Terry, 46, a security guard. “I still have to live here.”