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Upper East Side NYCHA tenants sue as new development looms

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“It’s unbelievable that we have to live this way”

The Holmes Towers NYCHA complex on the Upper East Side.
Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

Tenants who fought a controversial plan to develop private apartments at two public housing complexes on the Upper East Side are suing the New York City Housing Authority to force repairs as officials reconsider how to monetize the sites’ lucrative land.

More than two dozen residents at the Holmes Towers and Isaacs Houses are filing a pair of legal challenges in Manhattan Housing Court Friday, demanding officials “correct years of NYCHA’s neglect” by repairing busted elevators, fixing deteriorating heat and hot water systems, and exterminating vermin infestations, according to the preliminary complaints.

The lawsuits, which are being ligated by attorneys at TakeRoot Justice, specifically tackle dilapidated conditions in the complexes common areas and throughout the grounds. Longtime tenants with the Holmes-Isaacs Coalition say they’ve also suffered several reoccurring issues in their homes and hope the lawsuits lead to a crack down on pervasive dysfunction.

After numerous complaints, La Keesha Taylor says a moldy kitchen cabinet in her Holmes apartment was replaced. But the repair gave way to another problem when a gap between the wall allowed roaches to enter her home, Taylor contends. The lack of hot water is also a consistent problem she says; Taylor and her two young children did not have hot water during Thanksgiving.

“It’s unbelievable that we have to live this way and that we have to beg and plead for decency when we pay our rents and we pay our taxes,” says Taylor, a teacher.

Saundrea Coleman, a tenant at the Isaacs Houses who lived in Holmes for 23 years, says too little or too much heat is often a problem during the winter. Coleman, who has a terrace apartment, says she used to open the balcony door to cool off her home, but had to stop because it would allow mice to enter. Her 20-year-old son, she says, wakes up with nosebleeds when the heat is blasted.

“It’s just insane,” says Coleman, who is a retired civilian employee of the NYPD. “And this is what we deal with everyday.”

NYCHA estimated in 2017 that the two housing complexes have a combined need of $100 million, records show. To drum up funds, housing officials intended for the site to be the first of NYCHA’s 50/50 projects—rental towers built by private developers on public housing property. A 50-story building, which would have been developed by Fetner Properties, was planned to rise above East 92nd Street with 339 apartments in exchange for $25 million for repairs at the public housing complexes.

But tenants and local elected officials vocally opposed the effort, and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer filed a lawsuit in February, arguing that the project would subvert the typical approvals process for such a development.

In June, NYCHA scrapped the plan and said it was “reevaluating” how to address the dire capital need of the 537-unit residential development. Brewer’s lawsuit has since been dismissed, now that NYCHA is back to square one, but tenants hope to leverage their momentum from the debacle to improve their living conditions.

“It felt like, ‘How dare you just continue to kick us in the side while you just forge ahead and forget,’” says Taylor. “That’s what they were trying to do with this new building: put us in the shadows and just forget about us. We can’t let that happen.”

NYCHA spokesperson Barbara​ Brancaccio did not comment on the forthcoming lawsuit, only saying: “We haven’t been served with a complaint.”

The city’s embattled housing authority owns roughly 80 million square feet of unused development rights. Through infill projects, such as the one that was proposed in the Upper East Side, NYCHA aims to earn some $2 billion over 10 years and put that money back into repairing public housing as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $24 billion plan, dubbed NYCHA 2.0. Those plans were unveiled at the end of last year, but since then, the de Blasio administration has faced an uphill battle.

A September Citizens Budget Commission report says those efforts have “stalled” and points to the “resistance from elected officials and concerns from residents,” and the lack of new requests for proposals for future projects, says the CBC report.

In the Upper East Side, for the time being, Holmes-Isaacs residents are focused on improving existing conditions before future development is likely put back in play. Daniel Carpenter-Gold, an attorney with Take Root Justice, says the goal of the lawsuits is for a court to order NYCHA to repair the complexes.

“The problems are very real,” says Carpenter-Gold. “It’s just a matter of bringing them to the attention of a judge.”