This fall marks 10 years since Hurricane Sandy, and public housing residents in the seaside community of Coney Island are still struggling with its legacy on a daily basis.
Delayed repairs and temporary fixes — some dating back to the initial aftermath — have continuously interrupted essential services like heat and, in some buildings, running water.
Now, a decade-long remediation project is directly responsible for a cooking gas line break at O’Dwyer Gardens, one of the Coney Island's largest public housing complexes.
Hundreds of families in O’Dwyer have been calling for the city to restore cooking gas since construction broke ground on NYCHA’s Resilience and Recovery project in February, according to residents and local leaders. That project aims to replace damaged boilers and generators destroyed by the 2012 hurricane — but has instead broken gas lines. A spokesperson for the NYCHA acknowledged via email that the break at O'Dwyer happened because of the restoration project.
Similar failures across the road at another public housing development – labeled Coney Island I, but known locally as Sites 4 & 5 — are believed by residents to be due to crumbling infrastructure, exacerbated by damage after the storm.
There, another 1,000 residents have been without cooking gas for nearly a year, said building Tenant Association President Felita Jackson. In an emailed statement, NYCHA said that all of the 376 apartments are currently affected in one building at the complex. According to NYCHA’s online development portal, open monthly work orders at Sites 4 & 5 have grown 54% over the last year, from approximately 1,350 unresolved orders in June 2021 to 2,080 in June 2022.
“After Sandy I’ve had a lot of problems,” said Irma Bagan, a retired, disabled resident of O’Dwyer. “What’s going on in here is really crazy, because you pay rent you know you want to live decent. Not like an animal. They treat us like we’re not human beings, they treat us like dogs.”
Rent at NYCHA apartments varies. Renters are charged a “flat” monthly rate by the agency, or 30% of their gross adjusted income — whichever is lower. The populations at O’Dwyer and Sites 4 & 5 have a median annual household income of $19,663 according to recent census data, lower than the agency-wide reported average income of $24,454. In 2022, the flat monthly rate for a one-bedroom apartment in one of NYCHA’s developments is $1,644, or $19,728 for a year.
In an emailed response, NYCHA explained that the gas break at Sites 4 & 5 is “due to a leak on the main pipe,” adding that service cannot be restored until routine construction on all the wings is completed and inspected. But over the past year while the service has been out, the agency has only completed work on one out of five wings.
NYCHA’s Recovery and Resilience project, which fixes superstorm damage across the city, aimed to invest $805 million in Coney Island’s public housing units, including O’Dwyer, to prevent future storm damage through roof replacement, floodproofing, ground restoration, and boiler repairs.
Some complexes, like Sites 4 & 5, are listed as complete, leaving $700 million for additional and future repairs across public housing in the neighborhood. FEMA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development have provided $3.26 billion in total funding for NYCHA Recovery & Resilience construction through the second quarter of this year.
But the initiative has faced criticism from residents for repeat delays that have dragged the project through the last decade.
Just this year, apartments at buildings throughout the O’Dwyer complex have repeatedly lost access to gas — in February, March, and May, according to the site’s Tenant Association secretary Marlene Ramirez. Residents fear more interruptions are on the way.
“One by one by one, the gas service is disrupted, and quality of life suffers because of it,” said one second-generation resident of O’Dwyer, who asked for their name to be withheld for fear that they would lose their housing for speaking out. “You know what that does to the human psyche? People get fed up. That’s just one of the many issues that are going on here and it’s been going on for years!”
A lack of communication is also commonplace. On July 15th, residents told Gothamist that National Grid showed up unannounced (and without prior notice) to turn on the gas in some of the apartments.
"I have gas in my unit, but they're having trouble getting into other units because there were no notifications that this was going to happen today," the O’Dwyer resident said.
Every day there’s another issue. Human beings are suffering here in silence.
Alongside the gas issue are recurring water shutoffs in 2022, according to NYCHA documents and flyers placed around the buildings. The stated purpose of these is for further repairs or inspections, but over the last few months the water has been shut off for entire weeks altogether, residents said.
In a 2020 audit by the New York City Comptroller’s Office, NYCHA’s methods of tracking and repairing other issues, like heat, were found to be “inefficient and ineffective.”
In early July, parts of an O’Dwyer building experienced a water shutoff without advance notice that lasted about six hours, according to several residents. When the water returned, residents said it was “scalding hot.” Since then, they said the hot water has been turned off every few hours altogether.
“They’re playing a little game with the tenants. It’s abuse,” said the O’Dwyer resident.
New York State Assemblywoman Mathylde Frontus, whose district encompasses Coney Island, said fixing these developments is a never-ending battle. The complexes in Coney Island, like most NYCHA complexes across the city, face lackluster remediation.
According to a 2018 NYCHA assessment, federal capital funding has met only a fraction of capital needs since 2006. In the agency’s 2017 physical needs assessment, a five-year financial trajectory for improvements, NYCHA determined that it’s short $31.8 billion to return its campuses to a “state of good repair.” This is more than quadruple the assessed need from 2006 of $6.9 billion, pointing toward the department’s exponential decay as its buildings continue to age, particularly in the wake of Sandy.
“This is a game of whack-a-mole,” said Frontus. “Every day there’s another issue. Human beings are suffering here in silence.”
The ongoing repairs have left residents feeling helpless.
“You can’t do anything,” said O’Dwyer resident Roberta Rankins. “You can’t wash your head, do dishes, or mop your floor. It’s disgusting because when I pay the rent, they say that light and gas and hot water is included, but we don’t have it.”
Without access to stoves and ovens, NYCHA has given residents one electric hot plate per apartment, according to residents and flyers. But workarounds to find solutions to feed themselves and their families with the equipment have cost tenants additional thousands of dollars over the months that the gas has been out, according to residents.
“We have to use the hot pot, something like that, and it’s not enough. I want my stove because I like to cook, I’m so used to cooking or making something in the oven,” said Ramirez. “It’s not the same. It’s horrible.”
Alexandra Silversmith, the executive director of the nonprofit group the Coney Island Alliance, ran a 2021 Thanksgiving food drive, during which she said local NYCHA residents rejected the food.
“They didn’t want the turkey during our drive because they could not cook,” said Silversmith during a December interview. “There’s a level of suffering that is not being acknowledged at all. The construction has been taking forever, the lines are not there to run the gas.”
By late February, a city-sponsored hot food truck also began delivering meals to impacted residents. These trucks, organized by Frontus, were slated to offer food on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The initiative lasted for at least three months, but the problem persists.
In the agency’s response flyer posted in early July to O’Dwyer Building 5, NYCHA explains that “on average, gas outages last three months,” and that before service can be restored, the agency is legally required to repair the leaks and replace piping in every apartment, a process which involves a private contractor entering and staying in the apartment without tenants present.
“Somebody told me the lines would be fixed in 2023,” Jackson said during an April interview, when asked if NYCHA had given her an estimated completion date on the gas lines. “But if it’s not that, it’s the heat, or the elevators, or the water. The heat is terrible.”