New York

I-Team Chronicles Night in NYC Public Housing for Family of 5

Bianca Ramirez and her husband live in the Harlem River II building, where they must sleep in the same bedroom as their newborn and two young daughters

What to Know

  • The I-Team was invited to spend a night -- from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. -- chronicling one Harlem mom's life in NYC public housing
  • Bianca Ramirez and her husband live in the Harlem River II building; they have to sleep in the same room as their three young children
  • She's frustrated by the number of vacant, larger units in the same building; NYCHA says Ramirez has submitted incomplete transfer paperwork

A Harlem mother desperate to escape her cramped, bug-infested public housing apartment invited I-Team cameras to chronicle her life for an entire night -- from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. 

The resulting video is a window into the sometimes upsetting, inhumane conditions public housing residents routinely endure in New York City. 

"It’s very frustrating. Because if I owned my own building this is not what it would look like," said Bianca Ramirez, a married mother of three who has long asked to be transferred into a more size-appropriate apartment. 

Currently, Ramirez and her husband live in the Harlem River II building, where they must sleep in the same bedroom as their newborn girl and two other daughters, ages 8 and 3.

An insect infestation in the crowded apartment was so severe, roaches could be seen climbing the bedposts as the family slept. 

Ramirez said the most maddening part of her situation is that dozens of vacant apartments in the Harlem River Houses complex exist, including some two and three-bedroom units that sit empty while she pleads with NYCHA for more space.

One of those vacant apartments is a three-bedroom unit on the first floor that has been empty for six months. Another vacant unit -- also empty for half a year -- is a two-bedroom unit  directly across the hall from where Ramirez lives. 

Scott Stringer, the New York City comptroller, said he was disappointed to see Ramirez unable to relocate to one of those vacant units.

Five years ago, Stringer’s office completed an audit of vacant apartments in NYCHA, which estimated it took an average of 7 years to get an empty apartment rehabbed and reoccupied after a tenant moves out. The audit found "unusually long delays in renovating and returning vacant apartments to the rent roll at Harlem River," with one unit sitting empty and unrepaired since 1994.

"We identified this problem in 2014 when I first became Comptroller," Stringer said. "You have vacant apartments. Fix them. Get people into them. Exterminate. Do the basics so that a family – a mother putting a child to sleep - doesn’t have to stay up all night worrying whether or not a roach going to get into the bed." 

After the I-Team asked about the bug infestation, NYCHA sent a team of exterminators into Harlem River II. The agency says there were no previous complaints about insects in Ramirez's apartment.

Kathryn Garcia, the interim NYCHA chair, confirmed as many as 19 vacant units in the Harlem River Houses, but said they are all awaiting or in the middle of renovations and that all the empty units are claimed by residents who are ahead of Ramirez on the wait list. 

Garcia said a review of records shows Ramirez and her husband omitted key paperwork in previous applications for transfers, which she says is one reason so many transfer candidates are ahead of them. 

"They have done, twice, some of the paperwork, but not ever quite finished what’s required," Garcia said. "So we will go and work with them." 

Ramirez disputed the idea that her previous applications were incomplete, insisting she has provided proof of her daughters' and husband's birth and citizenship records. 

"I, at this point, should be at the top of the list," she said. "Because if the list is a two-year wait, I’m on three years." 

Since the comptroller’s audit, NYCHA has reduced the time it takes to rehab and re-occupy vacant apartments. Garcia said there is more room for further improvement, but it now takes "months" to get an empty apartment back on the rent roll.

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