Testimony by New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) Before the New York City Council, Committee on Public Housing: NYCHA’s Response to Hurricane Sandy

January 17, 2013

Chairwoman Mendez, Council Members and staff, good afternoon and thank you for the opportunity to testify about NYCHA’s response to superstorm Sandy. My name is Ann Dibble and I am the Director of the Storm Response Unit at the New York Legal Assistance Group. I am here with my colleague, Julia Russell, a Senior Staff Attorney in NYLAG’s Special Litigation Unit. We thank our colleague Sunny Noh, currently a Supervising Attorney in the Storm Response Unit and formerly a member of NYLAG’s Housing Unit, for her help in preparing these remarks. NYLAG is a nonprofit law firm dedicated to providing free legal services in civil law matters to low-income New Yorkers. NYLAG serves immigrants, seniors, the homebound, families facing foreclosure, renters facing eviction, low-income consumers, those in need of government assistance, children in need of special education, domestic violence victims, people with disabilities patients with chronic illness or disease, low-wage workers, low-income members of the LGBT community, Holocaust survivors, as well as others in need of free legal services.

As we all know, on October 29-30, 2012, the City of New York was hit by superstorm Sandy, devastating much of lower  Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. The New York Legal Assistance Group responded promptly, dedicating legal staff, setting up a legal hotline, and sending lawyers directly to impacted neighborhoods through partnerships with community-based organizations and the use of our Mobile Legal Help Center. While some have reported that this storm revealed a city of haves and have nots, for vulnerable New Yorkers and the organizations that serve them, this was already all too obvious. The storm merely brought to the forefront the challenges faced daily by those with limited resources, limited support and/or language and mobility barriers.

For residents of NYCHA Public Housing, the storm reinforced the familiar experience of being deprived of the legal rights to which they are entitled and of receiving worse treatment than that accorded to private tenants. It is well known in this room that NYCHA residents have had serious complaints about NYCHA’s management since long before the storm. NYLAG filed a class action suit against NYCHA in 2009, on behalf of residents with mobility impairments, challenging NYCHA’s failure to adequately maintain its elevators. That case has been settled, and we hope that under normal conditions, when the waters are not pouring into the buildings, elevator service will improve.

But we know that over the last few years, NYCHA has been falling further and further behind in making repairs to remove unsafe and hazardous conditions in residents’ apartments, in many cases scheduling repairs 1 to 2 years out. While NYCHA excuses this delay by citing funding problems, it has not been deterred from seeking to evict residents in Nonpayment and Chronic Rent Delinquency (CRD) cases, despite tenants’ legal right to withhold rent for a landlord’s failure to make necessary repairs. While there are many issues that should be addressed regarding NYCHA’s preparation leading up to and during the storm, we would like to focus on NYCHA’s response after the storm, in both failing to timely restore services and make repairs; and failing to providing adequate economic relief for the period of time residents were without essential services, a situation which, for some NYCHA tenants, continues to this day, more than 2 ½ months later.

It is estimated that some 77,000 NYCHA residents were impacted by the storm.1 Residents in affected areas lost electricity and/or went without heat and hot water for days to weeks. During the first two weeks after the storm, NYCHA did not have a strong presence. Residents relied on community organizations and volunteers to check on the disabled and/or elderly and provide food, warm blankets, etc. Many clients complained to NYLAG that they felt abandoned by building management and received little to no information about the conditions of their building. What little information they did receive was often confusing and conflicting, including information about whether they should evacuate or not. In later November, one Red Hook tenant reported that she had not seen a NYCHA employee since the days of the storm and that NYCHA had made no effort to evacuate her family or their neighbors. Another man reported that NYCHA had made no effort to assist his elderly, disabled mother in her Red Hook development, forcing him to find placement for her in a nursing home. We also met elderly NYCHA tenants in Brighton who were left in their apartments with no contact from NYCHA, living for weeks with no heat or hot water and no way to fill prescriptions.

Some apartments sustained severe water damage and many apartments are now dealing with a growing mold nuisance. For apartments that were already awaiting repairs for preexisting conditions, those conditions have become more hazardous, aggravated by sewage back up, water soaked infrastructure and mold. One NYCHA tenant in Red Hook reported that a NYCHA employee first came to his apartment a full month after Sandy. By that time, his kitchen was rapidly developing mold due to water that had backed up through his kitchen sink and broken tiles in the floor, the garbage in his building had not been picked up since before the storm and the hallways were unbearable because of the stench. While it is estimated that all developments have restored electricity, heat and hot water, many apartments are still uninhabitable due to water damage and mold conditions.

To make matters worse for suffering NYCHA residents, during the first two weeks after the storm, NYCHA continued to serve court summons and eviction notices on residents in developments that were without heat, hot water and/or electricity.2 NYCHA required all residents, including tenants of uninhabitable apartments, to continue paying rent without making any  accommodation for those who had to use rent money for emergency supplies to stay warm and dry. Thus, on November 12, 2012, when NYCHA Chairman Rhea announced that affected residents would be getting a rent abatement, but not until January 2013, what Chairman Rhea described as a “nice little Christmas gift,”3 provided little relief to residents.

Consequently, on November 16, 2012, NYLAG’s Special Litigation Unit sent a Demand Letter to NYCHA asking that NYCHA: (1) immediately provide a blanket one month rent abatement to all affected residents; (2) institute a policy that no late payments or failures to make payments would be cited for future Nonpayment or CRD cases for any period that developments are without all essential services; and (3) stay commencement of any new and any pending eviction proceedings until all essential services are restored. NYCHA responded on November 23, 2012, stating only that it would stay commencement of new eviction proceedings for residents in Evacuation Zone A from November 15, 2012 through January 1, 2013, but failed to sufficiently address our other concerns.

We have spoken to and/or met numerous displaced NYCHA residents who have had to expend their limited resources to pay for alternative temporary housing because FEMA hotels were at capacity, to pay for food and dry clothing and/or to pay for transportation to their apartments to check on the status of conditions and deter theft. We spoke to residents in Red Hook in November, including a single 81-year-old woman who expected to default on her next rent bill due to the costs expended on temporarily evacuating her water damaged apartment. We spoke with a woman from Far Rockaway who was unable to pay her November rent because she was also forced to pay for her own temporary housing due to the unavailability of FEMA hotels. She also incurred costs traveling to and from her apartment to monitor the conditions of her building, which was necessary because she could not get a clear answer from NYCHA about when her building would be open again. We spoke last week to a NYCHA resident in Rockaway who finally received her rent credit, which was a mere $80, for her apartment from which she is still displaced due to mold conditions. This client has a 16-month-old child who became severely ill when they tried to reenter the apartment due to the unabated mold condition.

While we understand the tremendous burden on NYCHA, especially in these unprecedented circumstances, as a landlord NYCHA is not entitled to rent payments when it fails to maintain its properties in a habitable condition. NYCHA’s failure to promptly restore services, and to repair water damaged and mold-ridden apartments, perpetuates the idea that residents of public housing are second class citizens. However, NYCHA is not exempt from the law; it is not exempt from the housing maintenance code. This agency cannot be absolved of its legal duties to its residents, particularly when they constitute some of the most vulnerable members of our City.

As NYLAG laid out in its November letter to NYCHA, there are specific steps NYCHA should take in the wake of the storm. NYCHA should provide at least a one month blanket rent abatement to all residents in affected developments and institute a policy that no late payments or failures to make payments during any period that the developments were (or are) without all essential services be cited for future  Nonpayment or CRD cases. Additionally, NYCHA must establish a transparent and easily navigated system through which residents can seek emergency repairs for apartments with water damage and mold nuisance, and must respond promptly to requests for repairs.

We welcome the opportunity to further discuss or comment on these matters in the future.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.

Respectfully submitted,

The New York Legal Assistance Group, by:
Ann Dibble, Director, Storm Response
Julia Russell, Senior Staff Attorney, Special Litigation
Sunny Noh, Supervising Attorney, Storm Response
1. See NY Customer Service Newsletter, Volume 1, Issue 1 (October 2008), NYCHA: Improving the Customer Experience, available at, http://www.nyc.gov/htmlops/downloads/pdf/nyc_cusomter+service_newsletter_volume_. NYCHA Ignored Recommendations To Prepare for Hurricanes like Sandy, Gothamist, 12/10/2012.
2. See Just Days After Hurricane Sandy, NYCHA Tenants with no Heat, Hot Water or Power get Eviction Notices, Greg B.  Smith, New York Daily News 12/23/2012.
3. NYCHA head tells tenants who are still without power that they’ll get a credit for their troubles – in January, Greg B. Smith, New York Daily News, 11/12/2012.