At a tense Wednesday hearing, members of the City Council gave New York City Housing Authority officials a tongue lashing over the agency’s struggle to maintain public housing’s ailing elevators.
The embattled authority, which houses some 400,000 New Yorkers, oversees 325 developments with more than 1,200 elevators that take 3.2 million trips each day. A team of 400 people—including 193 mechanics responsible for repairs—are tasked with the equipment’s upkeep with a $74 million annual budget, according to NYCHA data. But that funding is a drop in the bucket compared to what the agency projects is a $1.5 billion need to ensure the city’s public housing elevators are fully functional.
In the meantime, New Yorkers pay the price with increasingly frequent outages in NYCHA buildings. A NY1 investigation found that between 2012 and 2018, the number of elevator outages jumped by more than 16 percent from nearly 38,000 in 2012 to more than 44,000 last year. That translates to 121 breakdowns per day with the average outage lasting some 12 hours, according to a year’s worth of elevator records obtained by the network.
In some extreme cases, elderly and disabled tenants are trapped in their homes for extended periods, with one elderly woman and her wheelchair-bound daughter stuck in their Throggs Neck Houses building in the Bronx without a working elevator since May 30. The local councilmember, Mark Gjonaj, blasted the agency for the long-busted lift, which is not expected to be repaired until October.
“I dare imagine what would have happened had this been a private building. Oh, the administration would have been out there screaming this is appalling,” said Gjonaj. “But yet, when it comes to the largest city and the responsibilities of this government, no one is there to critique you and demand that you do better.”
Joey Koch, NYCHA’s senior vice president for Operations Support Services, is quick to acknowledge that the agency’s elevator maintenance “needs improvement,” and points to their “chronic lack of federal funding.” But she stressed that elevator problems are often caused or amplified by other issues.
“Elevator problems are not necessarily just elevator problems. Infrastructure issues greatly affect the elevator,” Koch testified during Wednesday’s hearing. “So if a roof is leaking, that affects the elevators. If there is a voltage reduction by Con Edison, that affects the elevators.”
NYCHA says it has invested $8 million in building accessibility over the past two years, and from January through August there have been 28,400 outages at public housing elevators across the city, down some 500 fewer incidents from the same period last year.
Koch says she meets biweekly with federal monitor Bart Schwartz’s team toward developing an elevator action plan due this fall that’ll work to identify and addresses some of the “ancillary problems” that cause outages, Koch says. Yet, that federal monitor came with no new funding and the cash-strapped agency is forced to make “strategic” budget decisions, as Koch puts it.
But it makes little difference how creative NYCHA gets with its dollars if it doesn’t have the budget support it needs, one councilmember charged at the hearing.
“This is the frustrating part for me. Are we battling a losing battle because you’re not getting the funding that you need? There’s a lot of patch-ups that takes place,” said Bronx Councilmember Fernando Cabrera. “I just don’t see how you’re going to get it done.”