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Is NYCHA doing enough to fight the coronavirus pandemic?

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NYCHA says it is deep cleaning its buildings, but some residents aren’t satisfied with what they’re seeing

Max Touhey

Less than a week after New York City announced its first confirmed case of COVID-19, Melanie Aucello reached out to officials with the New York City Housing Authority asking about precautionary measures the agency was taking to protect tenants in her Kips Bay apartment building.

Another week passed before the housing authority announced its cleaning and outreach efforts. By then, the city had 154 verified cases. Still, Aucello, who is president of the tenants’ association at 344 East 28th Street, says she saw little change in the roach-infested lobby and elsewhere in the building as she nervously watched reports of the city’s cases balloon well into the thousands.

Now, with more than 15,000 cases citywide, Aucello and other frustrated tenants have taken it upon themselves to make up for what they claim is a lack of cleaning in the building by sanitizing commonly-touched surfaces with their own supplies.

“We wipe down our own door handles, elevator buttons, mailboxes,” says Aucello, whose 250-unit development is across the street from Bellevue Hospital. “We check in on each other because if we waited for NYCHA we would all get sick.”

As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases climb, NYCHA says it is aggressively cleaning its 2,200 buildings three times a week through a combination of in-house staff and outside cleaning services. These daily cleanings are concentrated in high-traffic areas across the agency’s 361 complexes, such as common area doors, mailboxes, and elevator controls. At its 71 seniors-only buildings, NYCHA hired EastCo Building Services to clean five times a week with “a hospital-grade disinfecting spray that kills viruses” called Smart Touch; those same surfaces are then treated with BioProtect, a water-based protective barrier, that remains on surfaces for up to 90 days. This method will be utilized on a 30-day cycle as an extra precaution in addition to basic cleanings, according to the authority.

These measures are crucial to keeping residents healthy at NYCHA developments, where nearly a quarter of the authority’s 400,000 residents are 62 or older—a group that is particularly susceptible to fatal infection by COVID-19—and where the average household income is $25,007, according to city data.

“Since this pandemic hit New York City, NYCHA has been working around the clock to receive guidance and implement measures to ensure our approach and plans are thorough and responsive to a changing environment,” NYCHA CEO Greg Russ said in a statement, stressing that the authority’s “top priority” is the safety of its residents and employees. “We are prouder than ever of NYCHA property staff, who remain central to keeping our developments clean and sanitary.”

Still, Aucello and the residents of the East 28th Street building are not alone in their assertion that the housing authority isn’t doing enough to properly maintain some of its buildings during the COVID-19 pandemic. A tenant leader in an Upper East Side complex says the elevators and their panels are persistently sordid. “It smells like it was cleaned with a mop of urine,” says La Keesha Taylor, a resident of the John Haynes Holmes Towers in the Upper East Side. In December, tenants filed a lawsuit against NYCHA to force repairs at the complex. “It doesn’t look clean, it doesn’t smell clean,” Taylor says. “But everyone touches the buttons because they have no choice. It’s the same old, same old.” She and other residents have been using bleach wipes to clean elevator buttons and doorknobs throughout the complex.

On the Lower East Side, tenant leaders at the Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia Houses have adopted a similar practice at the 13-building development. “We are seeing some people clean, but not as much as I’d like. Me and my neighbors decided we want to protect ourselves,” says Felicia Cruikshank, the complex’s tenant association president. “I think the residents have been more vigilant than NYCHA.”

Aucello says that over the last few weeks, she has not observed cleanings in her building, despite management’s assurances that it is being cleaned daily. When she asked staff for a cleaning schedule, she said she was not given one. Aucello says that more than 60 of the roughly 450 tenants at her building are seniors—a chunk of whom are homebound—who aren’t always internet-savvy and can be a challenge to keep informed.

The housing authority has worked to pump information out to residents by posting updates to its website and social media accounts; sending out emails and alerts through its MyNYCHAapp; posting multilingual fliers in common areas; and scheduling robocalls and in-person outreach.

Still, some older residents have slipped through the cracks. A veteran at 344 East 28th Street who has mobility restrictions and takes care of his cognitively disabled adult daughter needed help stocking up on groceries; Aucello bought him milk, bread, and other essentials after knocking on his door.

“We have to unite as tenants to support each other,” says Aucello, who purchased fabric to sew makeshift masks for workers and residents since there’s a shortage in stores.

A spokesperson with NYCHA pushed back on this, noting that the housing authority is individually calling its “most vulnerable population” to confirm that residents understand the COVID-19 precautions and to determine whether they have access to food, medication, and any special services they need at this time.

The pandemic has also made things tricky for workers carrying out apartment repairs. In a recent email to residents, the authority told tenants to expect staff responding to non-emergency orders to ask if anyone in the unit has a fever, cough, or shortness of breath, or if anyone has tested positive for COVID-19. If so, workers will reschedule the visit in 14 days or when tenants are feeling better.

For emergency repairs such as gas or water leaks, for instance, staff will ask those who are sick to remain in a separate room or at least six-feet away from workers until repairs are complete. Tenants who don’t comply with the new rules will have their appointment rescheduled. Some residents note that NYCHA crews have responded with uncommon urgency to repairs over the last couple of weeks.

In the Stanley M. Isaac Houses on the Upper East Side, one resident received a new toilet within three hours of reporting that her old one had sprung a leak. In the Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City, a crew donning masks and gloves responded swiftly to reports of water damage in one apartment after the unit above saturated the bathroom ceiling.

“It’s been pretty smooth, in spite of everything,” says Lashawn Marston, a resident of the Queensbridge Houses whose apartment is being remediated for mold.

Aside from extra precautions, NYCHA has also made several operational changes to give public housing residents some relief, including halting evictions while the city is under a state of emergency, postponing Administrative Hearing Office cases for two weeks, and encouraging tenants who have suffered a loss of income to request an “Interim Recertification for any decrease in income that will last more than two months by accessing the NYCHA Self-Service Portal or requesting a paper from your Property Management office,” according to NYCHA’s website.

Now, the immediate concern for many is ensuring their buildings are thoroughly clean.

“This is about health and peace of mind,” says Maya, a tenant at the Red Hook Houses West, who declined to give her last name. “I have two teenage boys, I have my 89-year-old mother—this virus doesn’t care if you’re young or old—but if you give it an opening it will infect and spread. We can’t let that happen, especially not here in NYCHA.”