Question Authority is a 6-part podcast about New York's public housing crisis. In Episode 4, we look at the little things that are a big injustice -- bed bugs, roaches, broken doors, leaks. Families in NYCHA buildings are fighting for basic rights as tenants, while NYCHA admits its ticket system isn’t working. Listen on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher or listen below.
BIANCA CRUZ-RAMIREZ, a mother of three living in the NYCHA Harlem River II building, said her tiny one-bedroom has been infested with bed bugs since February.
“So my bed bug issue… Just talking about it makes me itch,” Cruz-Ramirez said. “It’s almost impossible to get rid of them.”
Cruz-Ramirez has also had to deal with giant cockroaches scuttling around her apartment. Her eight-year-old, four-year-old, six-month-old, and her husband all live in that six, seven hundred square foot apartment together. There is nowhere to get away from all the bugs. “We’re five people in a one-bedroom apartment. My bed is in the living room,” Cruz-Ramirez said. “It’s just too easy for them to find places to continue to survive.”
Not everyone has lead or mold or outages, but daily life for NYCHA residents can be hard, too. The smaller, day to day problems might not be as outrageous. But they add up. A damning report from the federal monitor in July 2019 shows these basic problems are common to thousands living in NYCHA housing: residents often have to deal with broken doors, broken elevators, broken pipes, overcrowding, rats, and roaches.
By NYCHA’s own rules, Bianca’s 5 person family should be in a 3 bedroom home. Since she moved into the building in 2014, she’s been trying desperately to get a transfer. For various reasons, mostly having to do with paperwork issues and rent disputes, the transfer process was never initiated. The whole time, her family just got bigger.
“We have no room whatsoever. My children are constantly fighting because they don’t have their own space, it’s causing high tension, stress, anger; the fact that our house is so cluttered causes depression,” Cruz-Ramirez said. “For the first time in my life I got hit with postpartum. Yeah, it hasn’t been easy.”
These conditions, the smaller, daily problems make tenants lives harder. But they can also be hazardous.
Lissette lives in NYCHA’s Baruch Houses on the Lower East Side. She asked to keep her last name out of the story because she is afraid of retaliation from NYCHA. She has bugs, too: during our interview, a cockroach ran across the table and landed on the bag of one of our producers. But Lissette is more worried about the building’s lobby.
“The main concern right now is the lobby and the danger that it poses to those who live here as well as the guests who come to visit,” she said. “Since about April or May, there’s been a broken pipe in the ceiling, which continuously leaks on a daily basis. That water just sits there sometimes, for days and days. That’s when the water gets really bad.”
At the time of our interview in July, it was still dripping. Someone had put a trash can and a bucket underneath the pipe, but they clearly were not doing much to stop the flow.
“It’s difficult because I have to watch my step as it is because my bones are so frail,” Lissette said. “Any misstep, I could break a bone.”
Lissette has stage four metastatic breast cancer. And she said she is not the only one in her building having trouble with the leak—she said she saw an elderly woman almost slip and fall.
“She stepped in the water and slipped, looked like she was gonna fall back,” she said. “I put my hands up and my neighbor just grabbed her so she didn’t fall. If she was by herself, god knows what could have happened.”
But that is not the only problem with the lobby: Lissette said the front door to her building has been broken for about three or four months.
“That means anybody can come in here,” she said. “There was a lady that used to live right across my door here, about three or four years ago. Apparently her daughter is a bit mentally unstable, I never met her. All I know is that she’s come into the building twice in the last month and a half. She sits in front of my door, she starts screaming, she starts kicking at the neighbor’s door, knocking, asking to come in, threatening that she’s going to kill herself, causing havoc. Screaming, just sitting there, screaming.”
Cruz-Ramirez said her door has been broken at least three times in the last year, too. In a comptroller report from 2018, it was found that 65% of NYCHA developments had broken doors.
“I’ve called NYCHA putting in tickets to get the door fixed, no one fixed it, same with the leak in the lobby,” Lissette said. “The same day we put in a ticket, they close ‘em.”
As the Federal Monitor said, there’s not really any correlation between the closing of a work order and the fix of a problem. In our interview with the new Chair of NYCHA, Gregory Russ, Russ said that the ticket system is an issue he’s intent on fixing
"I’ve talked to residents too who say the same things you’re communicating to me right now. Hey I put in this work request I got part of it done and the rest is still lingering. We just can’t continue to do that it’s not customer service and it’s not right," he said.
Cruz-Ramirez’s transfer seems to have made some progress. NYCHA said in an email that she’s on the waitlist, but that she should expect to face delays. She picked a specific development, which takes more time than the city-wide waitlist. But at the time of this publishing, she is still stuck in her one-bedroom with 5 people and even more bugs.
“My baby is almost six months, in only a couple of months she’s gonna be a year, and I’m gonna have no place to put her,” she said. “So me? I’m desperate.”
Lissette said that after we asked NYCHA about the issues in her building, they finally came to fix them. When asked, there was no response from NYCHA as to why it took so long to get them fixed in the first place. In the case of the pipe, they only offered insistence that repairs had been made, and in the case of the door, only insistence that the staff checks doors daily.
“We’re not animals, we’re human beings,” said Lissette. “I just don’t think it’s fair we have to live under these conditions or jeopardize our well-being because they’re not doing their due diligence to do what they have to do.”
Question Authority was researched, written, produced, and edited by Liam McBain. The executive producer is Jessy Edwards, with additional help from Ben Berkowitz and John Cuthbert.