The Housing Authority Is Not Ready For Coronavirus

Photo: Jeff Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Queensbridge Houses is America’s largest public housing development. Located in Long Island City, it is comprised of 96 six-story apartment buildings, spanning six blocks. Its official population count is 6,400, though the actual number is almost certainly higher. At 1 p.m. on Wednesday, seven senior citizens gathered at an on-site senior center for a thrice-monthly discussion about community issues, led by a Department for the Aging employee named Frank McCrea. All the attendees were black women, and their ages ranged from 64 to 79. There were fewer people at the meeting, and at the center, than usual. This week, they would discuss the coronavirus.

The mood, when the meeting began, was not heavy. McCrea read from a fact sheet: Wash your hands, don’t touch your face. The women bantered and traded rumors. Somebody had heard the president’s son had it. Another said a guy was spraying people with Lysol on the MTA. Another had recently returned from a cruise to Mexico. People wore masks and gloves, but were still mixing it up on the dance floor. The disease was on their minds, but it was, for the moment, an abstraction. “So,” asked Janie Edwards, 64, “You think we’ll be okay at the casino?” A monthly seniors’ trip to Empire City Casino, in Yonkers, was scheduled for the following Wednesday. She joked that she could wipe the slots with Clorox. (COVID-19’s first New Jersey fatality worked at Empire City Casino’s Yonkers Raceway. The track has been closed since Tuesday.)

As the session went on, concerns grew more pointed. McCrea read from the fact sheet, “People most at risk are those with health conditions including: chronic lung disease, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or weakened immune system.” This described essentially everybody in the room. Catherine Jordan, 78, has diabetes. Clovia Thomas, 70, has diabetes, bronchitis, and high blood pressure. Nellie Pettway, 79, has asthma, congestive heart failure, and suffers from complications from multiple strokes. “You name it, I got it,” she says. April Simpson, 58, the president of the Queensbridge Tenant Association, was not able to join the discussion. Simpson has diabetes, early-stage pulmonary disease, and kidney disease. She had developed a cold that week and worried she had contacted the virus. She wanted to see a doctor before interacting with residents. (On Friday morning, Simpson said a doctor told her she was asymptomatic.)

Soon, somebody at Queensbridge will test positive for the novel coronavirus. The seniors wondered how a quarantined resident would receive meals and medical attention. All seven said they live alone. Jordan and Pettway are dependent on home health aides, who help them five days a week, five to six hours a day. Who would care for them if their health aides were to contract the virus? Other units across the New York City Housing Authority face a different problem. Many apartments are overcrowded with unreported tenants, making close contact hard to avoid. (NYCHA officially has 400,000 residents, but some estimates put the number closer to 600,000.) “If one person in the whole building would have it,” Edwards asked, “do you think they would shut down the whole building?” There is no answer to this question. NYCHA, in an email, said its quarantine protocol “is the same as it is for every New Yorker” and that it must follow the guidance of various city, state, and federal partners.

The problem is not just that NYCHA’s aging and sick are uniquely vulnerable to COVID-19. It’s that the agency has little track record of creating healthy conditions for its residents. Residents over the age of 20 have been found to be four times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than other New Yorkers, according to New York City’s Department of Health; a 2018 report by the New York State Department of Health found that roughly half of NYCHA units it tested had visible mold growth. In 2019, the conditions of its 2,351 buildings were deemed so deplorable, the housing authority was forced to address the chronic lead, mold, busted heating, and general disrepair that plague its residents, under the eye of a federal monitor. The Department of Housing and Urban Development pledged $0 to the effort. In January, NYCHA’s capital shortfall was estimated at $40 billion.

Now, introduce a global pandemic to the equation. Rents are calculated based on previous year’s income, which will tax residents who lose work because of the virus. Public spaces — mailbox areas, elevators, stairwells , garbage chutes — may be hard to keep clean. Chaney Yelverton, the tenant association president of the Morrisania Air Rights development told New York he had to inform NYCHA chair Gregory Russ a week ago that the pink cleaning product used in his Bronx buildings was in fact devoid of disinfectant. The homeless population, itself vulnerable to COVID-19, often shelters in NYCHA buildings. Ancient pipes regularly break and leak sewage into apartments; it appears COVID-19 can be transmitted through feces.

New York was scheduled to interview Russ and his general manager Vito Mustaciuolo at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday. NYCHA canceled that interview and instead sent a written statement from Russ. According to the statement, NYCHA has contracted with a vendor that has begun deep-cleaning at senior residences, while also increasing the frequency of daily disinfecting cleanings by NYCHA maintenance staff. NYCHA would also be “observing a moratorium on residential evictions and extending our rental hardship policy to impacted households.” Beyond that, some of the burden will fall on non-profit community centers housed on NYCHA property, which are being encouraged to place restrictions on “congregate settings” while also continuing to provide the free cafeteria lunches that many seniors eat every day. As the situation escalates, residents are left making judgment calls. By Friday, after the mayor had declared a state of emergency, Edwards had decided to skip the trip to the casino.

Since the start of the outbreak, NYCHA hasn’t held one meeting for residents about the virus, across any of its 316 developments. Now, it is likely too imprudent, and too late, to do so.

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The Housing Authority Is Not Ready For Coronavirus