OPINION: The Housing Authority’s problems: a view from a former employee

The recent declaration by Mayor Bloomberg and New York City Housing Authority chairman John Rhea that the Housing Authority is going all-out to reduce its yearlong maintenance backlog brings several things to mind.

At one time, I worked as a “housing assistant” (entry-level management employee) in a Housing Authority project. As was usually the case with those recruits who had just graduated from the Housing Authority’s three-week training program (presided over by Housing Authority veteran Rocco Micari of Bensonhurst), I was assigned to one of the projects that were considered the least desirable places to work in the Authority.

This North Bronx project, which I will not name, was a haven for drugs and crime (although it was fairly safe during the daytime). A very large percentage of the tenants were welfare recipients, and although it was only 25 years old or so, it was already in terrible shape physically. It was also very hard to get to, not being close to any subway line. In effect, it was like a prison camp for the very poor.

No, we didn’t have a yearlong backlog of maintenance jobs—when a job in a tenant’s apartment wasn’t done within two weeks, It was considered a problem. But the grounds were in terrible shape—the lawns were filled with litter, the elevators were always breaking down, and one could smell the unmistakable smell of urine in those same elevators. The maintenance men would fix something – say, a faucet -- and then a few weeks later the tenant would come in, complaining that the exact same thing had broken.

What was the problem? Was it that the maintenance men, most of whom I knew, “didn’t care about” the tenants? I don’t think so – several of them lived in the project themselves. Was it because the tenants didn’t take care of the apartments? I have no doubt that in a situation where you have a large number of people with little education all living together, you will have some who, for example, throw coffee grounds down the sink until the sink gets stopped up. But that wasn’t the main problem either.

No, the problem had more to do with the rules of the city bureaucracy, rules that had little to do with the real world.

You see, back in the 1950s, when the project – one of the largest in the city -- opened, it was assigned 15 maintenance men. The buildings were new, the fixtures were new, the elevators were new, the lawns and trees were freshly planted. Fifteen maintenance men were all that the project needed!

Fast-forward 25 or 30 years later. The project was cheaply built to begin with, and inevitably, things began breaking down. In many cases, there wasn’t enough money in the budget to replace them. So the maintenance department had to do patchwork. Eventually, the caseload multiplied, and the maintenance men were given more and more “tickets” for jobs in tenants’ apartments, not to mention the common areas. A backlog began to build up.

Now, you would think that the Housing Authority’s “Central Office,” in its wisdom, would say, “Hey! This place is falling apart! Let’s assign it two or three more maintenance men!” But that wasn’t the case. Fifteen maintenance men was what it was assigned, and 15 maintenance men was what it would have, even when the number of jobs called for 20.

This was the same mentality that was responsible for having rolls and rolls of window-caulking tape in our storeroom. At one time, management had decided to insulate the windows, which were not in good shape. They had about 30 rolls left over. One would think that they would be sent back to Central Office, where they could be dispatched to another project that needed the material. But no—they sat in our office for a year before they were finally taken away. At one time, I actually thought of “taking” some of them and selling them to local hardware stores, but I’m glad I didn’t—I could have gotten caught.

After a year and a half, I was promoted to housing assistant in the Section 8 program, which didn’t have any “brick and mortar” properties. Yet, to some extent, you still saw the same mentality there. When I asked why we did so many apartment inspections, one of the assistant managers told me that we were given so much money for the year, and if we didn’t spend all of it, we would get less money the next year. It seems to me like it should have been the other way around—to reward specific units for saving money.

Hopefully, computerization, which was just getting under way at the time (one of my co-workers had a “thing” for one of the computer consultants, a tall blonde from Colorado), solved a lot of these problems. And I’m not as naïve as those people who rail against “government waste” as if government were the only place where such practices exist—I know that there are just as many inefficient procedures in the private sector. But, if my long-ago experience is any barometer, the Housing Authority does have quite a lot of work to do.