In his classic 1890 book about Lower East Side slums, police reporter turned muckraker Jacob Riis catalogued a wide range of housing horrors, from a lack of ventilation to overcrowding. But one account retains ironic relevance this week.
Riis wrote of “the scandalous scarcity of water in the hot summer when the thirst of the million tenants must be quenched” but “squeaking pumps hold no water.” That roughly describes the conditions at . . . the Jacob Riis Houses, where tests have found high levels of arsenic tainting the water.
Built in 1949, the public-housing complex of 1,727 apartments in 19 buildings literally replaced the tenements Riis denounced as unsafe and unsanitary.
The New York City Housing Authority started handing residents bottled water Friday — two weeks after the arsenic tests reportedly came back positive. Though the latest test found no arsenic, NYCHA is still advising tenants to avoid drinking or cooking with the water. One can only wonder if they’ll regain their faith in the safety of this basic public service.
We’ve become accustomed to politicians blaming NYCHA’s woes on reduced federal funding. But Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, speaking at the Riis Houses, uncharacteristically latched onto the truth: Management, not funding, is the problem, he told reporters. Indeed, NYCHA brass have taken long-overdue steps to find new sources of funds to address the estimated $40 billion backlog in maintenance. But day-to-day management appears to overwhelm them.
NYCHA, to its credit, maintains an online history of tenant service complaints at all its projects. It is sobering, to say the least. The water problem is far from the only issue Riis tenants have brought to management.
The list of service issues over the past two years includes no fewer than 47 online pages of “service interruptions,” including “unplanned” outages of heat and hot water. There are hundreds of elevator failures — no small matter in a complex where 25% of households include residents 65 or older. And the Riis buildings are all high-rises. An elevator issue was just reported as the water problem continues.
One can hardly be surprised tainted water has been found. Recall that NYCHA drew the ire of the federal government for failing to report the widespread presence of lead paint in its units — and even falsely stated such paint was not present. We learned, in its settlement of the federal lead-paint lawsuit, that NYCHA provided its staff with a list of “Quick Fix Tips” to improve its Department of Housing and Urban Development inspection scores. Not exactly a commitment to customer service.
More funding alone is not going to solve NYCHA’s problems. Not when management’s hands are tied by contracts with no fewer than 30 unions. Incredibly, it took protracted negotiations to get employees to work hours other than 9 to 5 — so as to make sure trash doesn’t overflow dumpsters on the weekends, for instance.
Jumaane Williams is onto something. Just because the city owns its vast public-housing system doesn’t mean it must act as management, nor that unionized public employees must serve as its workforce.
New York City has a multitude of property-management companies with vast experience in overseeing apartment complexes. Far better for NYCHA to contract with private firms that could be held accountable for such ills as tainted drinking water — and failing to notify tenants of such problems. The possibility of losing a contract would tend to focus a firm’s attention in a way that clearly hasn’t occurred with NYCHA employees.
One must empathize with NYCHA upper management, responsible for a vast system but with limited control over unionized employees distant from headquarters and not held accountable. As with Rikers Island, far better for NYCHA to face not just a federal monitor but a federal receiver, which could void labor contracts and put management on a better path.
Finally, it’s worth noting the Riis Houses stand on what were once LES slums but is now valuable real estate on FDR Drive. The nearby Baruch Houses have been assessed at more than $1.1 billion. It could well make more sense to sell the Riis houses — and share the profits with the tenants. Given the endless problems, it might be an offer they would not refuse.
Howard Husock is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.