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NYCHA blasted for ‘string of failures’ with post-Sandy repairs on the LES

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A Lower East Side lawmaker demands greater oversight of federally-funded Sandy work at public housing complexes

Dozens of brown public housing buildings are shown in the foreground with midtown Manhattan’s skyline in the background.
A crane collapse at the Jacob Riis Houses on July 30 forced tenants to evacuate their homes.
Max Touhey

After a series of incidents related to repairs at Lower East Side public housing complexes after Superstorm Sandy, City Council member Carlina Rivera is calling on the New York City Housing Authority to ramp up its oversight of contractors carrying out federally-funded reconstruction work.

In a searing letter to NYCHA’s new CEO Greg Russ, who started his job Monday, Rivera slammed the troubled agency over “a string of failures” in her district, including a partial crane collapse at the Jacob Riis Houses that forced tenants of two apartment towers to evacuate, and a gas line ruptured by crews working at the Baruch Houses.

Rivera says she has been “confounded by the lack of external oversight” of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)-funded recovery work and is calling for an audit of the contracts that in some cases can dole out work to nearly two dozen subcontractors.

“It is extremely complicated and there doesn’t seem to be a very streamlined system for there to be safe work and to make sure the residents know what’s going on,” Rivera told Curbed. “We need an audit of the tens of millions of dollars being spent on this work.”

Superstorm Sandy decimated parts of New York City in 2012, and the five boroughs landed $14.7 billion in federal recovery funds to rebuild and strengthen ravaged neighborhoods. Of that, NYCHA earmarked $344 million to overhaul the Jacob Riis Houses and the Baruch Houses, which were each inundated with water during the powerful storm.

Recovery work at the Jacob Riis Houses has a 2019 competition date, but construction at the complex’s remaining apartment towers and at the Baruch Houses isn’t expected to be complete until 2022, according to NYCHA’s records. In the meantime, residents have had to endure shoddy work and a lack of transparency about where the upgrades stand, according to the councilmember.

“Our community is watching in awe as NYCHA’s own FEMA resiliency money is being spent in ways that have left tenants feeling miserable, turning my largest public housing development into what looks like the surface of the moon,” Rivera wrote in her August 9 letter.

The embattled housing authority has faced a volley of recent criticism as Russ steps into the role of NYCHA CEO with a $402,628 annual salary—more than any other city official—and plans to return to his family in Minnesota on the weekends.

NYCHA also took heat after a May audit by the city’s fiscal watchdog, Comptroller Scott Stringer, found that the authority has spent only 41.1 percent of its $3.1 billion in federal recovery aid some eight years after the storm.

A spokesperson for NYCHA noted that in 2015 NYCHA signed an agreement with the city’s Department of Investigation for independent auditors to monitor contracts for Sandy-related repairs and restoration. The agency, which received Rivera’s letter Saturday, declined to comment on the record.