NYC Public Advocate Condemns Nycha Response To Jacob Riis Houses Water Crisis And Longstanding Patterns Of Mismanagement And Mistrust At Nycha

September 23rd, 2022

Press Release

Today, Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams spoke at the New York City Council Committees on Public Housing and Oversight and Investigations joint hearing examining the recent arsenic water crisis at Jacob Riis Houses, where he condemned the Authority’s response, as well as the longstanding patterns of mismanagement at NYCHA which have contributed to a deep mistrust among NYCHA tenants. The initial positive tests for arsenic, later retracted, came just hours after the Public Advocate unveiled his new report on NYCHA’s widespread dangerous conditions and systemic failures during a press conference and tour at Jacob Riis Houses.

“This is clearly another example of how NYCHA continues to fail their residents by creating an unsafe environment.” Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams argued in today’s hearing. “In our report, we highlight the years of water damage that has ruined many apartments and the constant heat and hot water outages during the winter months. New issues like the safety of the water supply keep cropping up while recurring issues remain unabated, and it appears that NYCHA is not doing much to resolve these problems.”

The Public Advocate also decried the failure of former NYCHA CEO and current Chair, Greg Russ, to attend the hearing, saying, “I don’t know what is more disconcerting: that NYCHA’s CEO has recently stepped down during the midst of this turmoil, or that he is still serving in the capacity of Chair, making a pretty good salary, and is not here. A Chair who resides five states away with a distance of over a thousand miles. I do think it’s disrespectful that he is not here, disrespectful to the Council, disrespectful to all of NYCHA and Jacob Riis in specific, and it’s inexplicable that he’s not here to answer questions.” Russ served as CEO during the height of the crisis before stepping down after initial arsenic results were retracted.

In the wake of the crisis, Public Advocate Williams introduced legislation in the City Council to require the New York City Housing Authority to report on any outside legal expenditures it incurs. This legislation will provide the public with a sense of the financial cost of those failures and an accounting for legal actions NYCHA is involved in which extend beyond the scope of in-house counsel. With NYCHA facing a funding crisis, it is essential to have transparency about these kinds of expenses in order to identify patterns and prevent avoidable damage or unnecessary waste.

Read the Public Advocate's statement below, the bill on legal expenditures, and the report named for Jacob Riis' work, How the Other Half Lives in Public Housing.

STATEMENT OF PUBLIC ADVOCATE JUMAANE D. WILLIAMS

TO THE NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL COMMITTEE ON PUBLIC HOUSING AND THE COMMITTEE ON OVERSIGHT AND INVESTIGATIONS

SEPTEMBER 23, 2022

My name is Jumaane D. Williams and I am the Public Advocate for the City of New York. Thank you very much Chair Avilés and Chair Brewer and members of both committees for holding this hearing and allowing me to provide a statement. 

About three weeks ago, my office and I released a report called, How the Other Half Lives in Public Housing, named after a book by Jacob Riis that was written over a hundred years ago which spotlights the inexcusable and dangerous conditions at NYCHA developments that we witnessed during our 5 Borough Tour earlier this year. We did it inside of Jacob Riis Houses. Not even twelve hours later, we learned that NYCHA discovered arsenic in the tap water at Jacob Riis Houses – even though they knew we were going to be there, and we were one of the folks that were never told of what was going on. 

According to THE CITY article, the test result that showed arsenic in the tap water was completed a week before any of the residents were notified. After being notified, many of the residents informed reporters that they do not drink from the tap water because it was either brown or smells. To this day, residents still complain about the water and let it be known that the complaints were happening well before August. However, they have not been given an explanation as to why that is. This could be as a result of aging pipes, and we all need to know what the state of NYCHA’s pipe system is through the five boroughs. It is important to note that DEP conducted tests of its water to its delivery points at Jacob Riis Houses and it came back negative for any contaminants.  

This is clearly another example of how NYCHA continues to fail their residents by creating an unsafe environment. In our report, we highlight the years of water damage that has ruined many apartments and the constant heat and hot water outages during the winter months. New issues like the safety of the water supply keep cropping up while recurring issues remain unabated, and it appears that NYCHA is not doing much to resolve these problems. 

I don’t know what is more disconcerting: that NYCHA’s CEO has recently stepped down during the midst of this turmoil, or that he is still serving in the capacity of Chair, making a pretty good salary, and is not here. A chair who resides five states away with a distance of over a thousand miles. I do think it’s disrespectful that he is not here, disrespectful to the council, disrespectful to all of NYCHA and Jacob Riis in specific, and it’s inexplicable that he’s not here to answer questions. 

NYCHA has had three chairs during my tenure in office spanning twelve years which does not help to stabilize a mismanaged agency greater in size than many cities. However, I feel strongly that NYCHA will not be able to rectify its management problems without boots on the ground. NYCHA’s employees must be made up of more New York City, in particular NYCHA, residents.

With no clear direction of what NYCHA will do next, how will they ensure that this does not happen again? NYCHA’s chronic mismanagement led to the appointment and oversight of a Federal Monitor. Our report was clear that more funding was actually needed for NYCHA, but we were also clear that the mismanagement was not necessarily attached to funding, and that mismanagement was solely the auspices of NYCHA. The Federal Monitor was not notified by NYCHA of the initial arsenic test samples. NYCHA has to have a process in place to expeditiously notify residents, the mayor, and the Federal Monitor, and other electeds, of emergency conditions irrespective of water tests that yield a positive or a false positive result.

In closing, I would like to know why a contractor who was not certified with the city to do this type of testing was hired to do the testing? That’s what we have heard, and I think that’s a question that needs to be answered. In addition to that, why did it take so long to complete the water testing and why was the first test not rushed like the later ones? Why would you wait so long to get the test completed? There was a seven-day period between when the testing company had allowed the City to release the results compared to when residents at Jacob Riis found out. It is extremely inconsiderate that NYCHA residents were the last ones to hear about this even though they are the ones directly impacted. I do have to say, NYCHA was encouraged to have meetings all throughout that process, and they refused. We need to know what is the process for informing individuals of emergency situations and whether NYCHA followed its procedures. If there is no process in place, then one has to be created and implemented immediately.  

Lastly, knowledge and information is power. NYCHA cannot render its residents powerless to determine what are the necessary steps to take for their health and the health of their family. Residents can make informed decisions, but they first need to be informed. I do have to say as well, that I know this is a systemic issue. Having been through three different people in charge, it is clear that just removing one person is not going to fix the system. It is deeply entrenched systemic problems that are happening with NYCHA. 

Thank you.

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