Tenants at Smith Houses Allege Retaliation by NYCHA; Lawsuit Filed (Updated 5:44 p.m.)

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A news conference was held this morning near Robert Wagner Place and Pearl Street.

For the past three years, monthly gas outages have been a way of life at the Alfred E. Smith Houses, a 12-building complex along the East River.   Water damage from a leaky roof has made life miserable for residents of the large public housing complex.  Aixa Torres, Smith’s tenant president, was heartened several months ago when the New York City Housing Authority finally signaled it would begin making desperately needed repairs.  But then something changed, Torres said, and the projects were put on terminal hold.  That “something,” she asserts, was the tenant association’s decision to oppose NYCHA’s plan to build luxury housing on a parking lot and athletic field at Smith.  This morning, tenants, their attorneys and community activists held a news conference to discuss a lawsuit they have filed against the housing authority demanding that repairs be made without delay.

The lawsuit, first reported by the New York Times April 29, was filed on behalf of more than 300 tenants by lawyers from the Urban Justice Center’s Community Development Project and New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.  In a prepared statement, Torres said “we will not be held hostage” by NYCHA for opposing the leasing plan, which entails leasing property at eight developments throughout Manhattan, including five on the Lower East Side.  After being told last fall that gas lines would be replaced, Torres, explained, NYCHA officials (including General Manager Cecil House), changed course, indicating that repairs were only possible if the leasing proposal becomes reality.  While they later suggested that Torres “misunderstood,” she took the threat seriously, saying today, “I know what I heard.”

Elileen Gardenhire says her son was made sick by mold in their apartment.

Eilleen Gardenhire says her son was made sick by mold in their apartment.

The lawsuit lists a large number of specific maintenance problems, including crumbling ceilings, the presence of rats, toxic mold, broken stoves and showers and defective locks.  Eilleen Gardenhire, a Smith tenant, says her 9-year-old son has been made sick by mold growing in their apartment since Hurricane Sandy.  His asthma has gotten progressively worse, and NYCHA has refused to move the family to a different apartment, she says.  Also at the news conference this morning was Damaris Reyes, executive director of Good Old Lower East Side, the tenant advocacy organization.  “We all deserve safe, affordable housing,” she argued, adding, “residents feel (the lack of progress on repairs) is retaliation (by NYCHA).”  Like many speakers today, she criticized the city for compelling NYCHA to pay $70 million to the NYPD for housing project patrols when the agency has so many unmet needs.

The only elected official present, John Liu, the city’s comptroller and a mayoral candidate, proclaimed, “we are not going to get strong-armed by NYCHA.”  He called the leasing plan one more example of the Bloomberg administration’s fixation on peddling the city’s precious public assets to the highest bidders. Harvey Epstein of the Urban Justice Center said the leasing plan is “not the answer” when crucial repairs need to be made now. “It’s an unacceptable solution,” he said.

We contacted NYCHA for a response; a spokesperson said the authority would have nothing to say since litigation is pending.

UPDATE 5:44 p.m. We just received the following statement from NYCHA:

Staff of the New York City Housing Authority continue their dedicated efforts to close the backlog of repairs at Smith Houses as we have throughout NYCHA.  In fact, we closed more work orders at Smith Houses in the first quarter of 2013 than we did in the first quarter of 2012.  Our efforts to eliminate the backlog of open work orders are not at all linked to the land-lease plans. According to the analysis prepared for HUD by NYCHA, Smith Houses, alone, would need over $200 million to be placed in a state of good repair over the next 5 years.  NYCHA’s land lease plan, through the revenue it would generate, would directly address these needs at Smith Houses.