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NYCHA Tenants Threaten Rent Strikes

CECILY MAURAN, HOST: The half a million New Yorkers who live in public housing in New York City have been disproportionately affected by the Coronavirus. They tend to be older, work in essential jobs that can expose them to the virus, and have preexisting health conditions. But residents say the condition of the buildings they live in are also putting them at risk. As Will Walkey reports, some are now considering withholding rent until their concerns are addressed.

WILL WALKEY, BYLINE: Mayor Bill de Blasio asked the federal government last week to suspend rents in New York City Housing Authority facilities. He hasn’t gotten near an answer yet, but some NYCHA residents are ready to take matters into their own hands.

SOUNDBITE 1: Power up let’s go. That’s right. Power up, let’s go unite.

WALKEY: About 70 people -- mostly NYCHA residents -- recently got together virtually to talk about the conditions of NYCHA buildings and apartments… which have long been a problem. But residents say those poor conditions are now making coping with COVID-19 more difficult. La Keesha Taylor lives in the Holmes Towers on the Upper East Side.

LA KEESHA TAYLOR: We already are exposed to mold, rodents...elevators that don't work, and now we have a pandemic on top of this. What are we to do? This is just exposing the problems that we face as a NYCHA resident.

WALKEY: For example, How can you socially distance yourself in a 25-story building with only one working elevator? In 2018, the city found that 83 percent of surveyed NYCHA units were in need of severe repairs...broken appliances, mold outbreaks, rodent infestations, and others. But NYCHA’s funding still didn’t increase in this year’s budget. So community organizers are now encouraging residents to withhold their rent. Dannelly Rodriguez is a law student and an organizer for the Justice for All Coalition.

DANNELLY RODRIGUEZ: We've been neglected. We've been oppressed. We're living in these deplorable conditions. We need a political solution. And this is how you force the issue.

WALKEY: New York State property laws grant tenants the right to organize and withhold rent if landlords don’t respond to their request for repairs. But it’s risky. If landlords take them to court and win, tenants will owe back rent and could be evicted. NY has placed evictions on hold for three months due to coronavirus, but some tenants have already started withholding their rent.

KIMBERLY TYRE: Hello. Good evening everyone.

WALKEY: Kimberly Tyre hasn’t paid rent in three years because of what she calls “deplorable” living conditions. During this pandemic, she’s forced to spend most of her time in her apartment.

TYRE: How have I been impacted during the Coronavirus? It has gotten worse. I have been in my apartment since February of 2020 without a oven, with leaks.

WALKEY: She had a court date in April for nonpayment, but that got pushed back. She’s now trying to organize her building: The Jefferson houses in East Harlem.

TYRE: I plan to have many town halls, and put a crayon marker poster outside my window stating that I’m on a rent strike and I’m telling them, I said, I’m not paying them until my repairs are done.

WALKEY: But the coronavirus is also impacting NYCHA’s ability to make repairs. A spokesperson for the housing authority said in an email that they’re just completing emergency repairs for issues like water and gas leaks, non-working stoves, or rodent infestations. She also says crews are cleaning building common areas 3 times a day, and senior centers 5 times a day. Protocols that exceed the Department of Health Standards. But residents say those cleanings aren’t happening. Shelby Garner works in community affairs for Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney.

GARNER: We heard that residents were not seeing the cleaning happening to the extent that NYCHA was saying it was happening that they did not feel that the disinfecting protocols were being implemented.

WALKEY: Representative Maloney wrote a letter last week calling for NYCHA to better protect residents during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dannelly Rodriguez says now is the time to put pressure on lawmakers to make changes, and that more people striking means more leverage.

RODRIGUEZ: 100 is stronger than 1. 1000 is stronger than 100. NYCHA will not be evicting people in mass.

WALKEY: But for now, It’s still unclear just how many NYCHA tenants might actually join a strike. Will Walkey. Columbia Radio News.


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