Photographer Matt Richter has been documenting relief efforts inside the public housing on Coney Island, where thousands of people are still without electricity, heat and hot water. "This crisis is ongoing," Richter tells us. "The sick and elderly are trapped on the top floors of high-rise buildings in cold, pitch-black apartments without anyone to check on them or anyone to talk to. Mothers cannot feed their children because all of the local storefronts have been destroyed by flooding and looted. Diabetics and asthmatics have run out of medicine. Residents are heating their homes using gas stovetops and poisoning themselves."
These appalling conditions are replicated in public housing developments throughout the city. According to the NYC Public Advocate, 7,000 tenants in public housing are still without electricity (which was shut off October 29th) and 18,000 residents still have no hot water or heat. The electrical gear boxes and boilers in these buildings were severely damaged in the flooding from Hurricane Sandy, and in many cases Con Ed cannot safely reconnect the power until NYCHA electricians complete the necessary repairs.
Adding insult to injury, public housing tenants will be required to pay rent up front for the time they've spent stranded in cold, dark high rises with no elevators. The NYCHA has promised to give the residents a credit, but not until January, and they're required to pay rent in the meantime.
Yesterday NYCHA Chairman John Rhea won the Tone Deaf of the Day award when the visited the Red Hook Houses and told one tenant, "Hang in there. You're going to get a rent credit. It's a nice little Christmas present." Oh NYCHA, you shouldn't have. What's the stocking stuffer, D batteries?
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio was quick to denounce NYCHA's decision to charge tenants rent for their darkened post-apocalyptic catacomb hovels. In a letter to Chairman Rhea, he writes:
It is unacceptable to charge full rent up front for tenants who in many cases are still living in the dark. While NYCHA has committed to giving these tenants a rent credit in January of 2013, this policy in no way reflects the immediate needs of affected developments. NYCHA should cease rent collection in affected developments until basic services are restored, such as electricity, heat and hot water. No tenant in public housing should be forced to pay the City for rent they do not actually owe.
I have seen firsthand the dire conditions facing tenants stranded in public housing buildings without basic services. Many of these tenants have lost income and incurred substantial out-of-pocket costs to provide for their families throughout this crisis. At a time when thousands are still grappling with basic human needs like hot water, warm food and a warm place to sleep, we cannot impose additional and unnecessary costs.
NYCHA has cited logistical reasons for issuing credits at a later date. These challenges cannot take precedence over the daily struggles facing tenants. We must cease rent collection now and bill tenants in the future for only the amount they truly owe.
Richter, the photographer, sums it up quite succinctly when he tells us, "People are still suffering greatly, living in appalling conditions while others are enjoying the luxuries of modern society 15 minutes away." For information on how to help, here's Occupy Sandy.