Public Housing Tries to Move On From Sandy, But Temporary Fixes and Poverty Persist

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Buildings in Red Hook Brooklyn continue to run on temporary mobile boilers

Public housing developments across the city from the Rockaways in Queens, to the Lower East Side, to Red Hook, Brooklyn, were flooded by Sandy. Electrical systems and boilers remained underwater for days in some complexes. Many residents did not evacuate and endured dark, cold buildings for weeks. Today, the basics – heat, hot water and power – are back but many fixes are temporary.

At Ocean Bay houses, a 24 building development in Far Rockaway, the storm exposed very vulnerable tenants with little to fall back on. More than 3,000 people live in this large complex that is surrounded by water on two sides. Aria Doe from the non-profit, Action Center runs a relief site here. “This place was underwater you saw the water line,” said Doe. “We had to clear it out ,muck it out.”

On a recent Friday, young men wheeled in dollies piled high with baby formula, water and cleaning supplies. Doe said everything from cribs to heaters to a washer and dryer have been donated and people continue to line up outside for help 3 months after the storm hit. She estimates up to $800,000 worth of goods have been distributed so far.

 “In the beginning, the thought was if I get the heat back everything will be ok. If I get the water back everything will be ok. If I can just get some warm clothes everything will be ok.”  But Doe said everything came back and families were not ok.

6 public housing developments are on this 11 mile Rockaways peninsula. They house roughly 10,000 residents and according to the housing authority 80% of them are living 200% below the poverty line. Residents struggle in the best of times and now with no A train service, they are more isolated than ever.  Does says the better off tenants have lost cars and jobs as nursing homes that employed them closed, if not permanently then temporarily. Health issues also got exacerbated.

“Even people who doesn’t have respiratory issues, they were coming in and saying they were having difficulty breathing,” said Trina Maddox who runs a makeshift health clinic at Ocean Bay. “I myself who never had any type of respiratory issues also was experiencing difficulty breathing.”

Maddox said mold spores and smoke from fires that burned in Breezy Point and other places were irritating people’s lungs in the days and weeks after Sandy. She said body rashes were also common at first but not anymore. Maddox wondered whether contaminated water was to blame.  She said demand has slowed but the storm and the relief efforts revealed the deep poverty people have been living with day to day.

“There was like a lot of issues before Sandy and after Sandy everything just become more vivid to the world,” said Maddox.

At the Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn, temporary generators and mobile boilers rumble throughout the complex. The noise could be with tenants for up to a year as the housing authority contemplates ways to move boiler rooms out of basements and onto higher floors. 23 temporary boilers and 15 generators are still in use at developments citywide. Tenant Wally Bazemore said the sound can be irritating and the boilers often overheat apartments. The earthquake of 2011 also damaged a chimney at the Red Hook Houses. These already deteriorating buildings have now endured two natural disasters in less than 2 years. NYCHA said it cost $80,000 to fix the chimney.

At a recent city council hearing, NYCHA General Manager Cecil House was asked how much Sandy had cost NYCHA so far.

“Our assessment so far has our damages in the $800 million dollar range…and we may end up closer to a billion dollars as we complete our reviews,” House said.

It’s unclear how much of this the federal government will reimburse. On top of what’s already been spent, NYCHA wants to make improvements such as installing emergency lighting in hallways and investing in more heavy duty pumps. House acknowledged inadequate pumps left crucial equipment soaking in salt water for days.

Bazemore sees the attention public housing is getting as an opportunity that won’t last long. He believes residents need to seize the moment.

“This may not happen again and we hope it doesn’t,” Bazemore said. “But you know they have to know that these residents are concerned.”

After the storm, Bazemore said tenants remained in the dark both literally and figuratively and post Sandy, he’s hoping that will change.