New Yorkers are complaining about sanitation more than at any time in recent memory. But according to a team of city inspectors, only 1.5% of streets across the five boroughs are “filthy.”
That finding for fiscal year 2022, which is included in the biannual Mayor’s Management Report and used by the Department of Sanitation to determine policy, surprised many New Yorkers.
“Have you seen New York? It’s dirty everywhere,” said Blanca Java, who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
She doubted the accuracy of the analysis, which found only 6% of the streets in her neighborhood were “filthy.”
Another one of the city’s dirtiest districts, according to the City Hall program called “Scorecard,” is Morrisania in the Bronx. City observers rated 7% of streets there “filthy.”
“Yeah, this is one of the worst neighborhoods,” said resident Vernon Sidbury. “When you come out at night, there's rats all over the place. If you come down this side block, there's rats coming from everywhere. They’re coming out of the lots, out of the ground, everything. You know, it is one of the filthiest places.”
The Scorecard survey dates back to 1973 and is run by the Mayor’s Office of Operations. The program faced tough scrutiny from the state comptroller’s office just this week as part of an ongoing review of whether the sanitation department “effectively monitors the cleanliness of NYC’s streets and sidewalks.” Inspectors visit blocks each month and assign a score ranging from “acceptably clean” to “filthy” based on the amount of litter. That score is then extrapolated to apply to an entire sanitation district.
According to a map of the scores, some of the cleanest neighborhoods in the last fiscal year were the Financial District and the Upper East Side, which had no filthy streets.
Previous Scorecards show that only 0.2% of city streets were filthy in fiscal year 2018. In fiscal year 2020, only 0.1% of streets were deemed filthy.
The obscure metric is surprisingly important. State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli wrote in a 2020 audit that the Scorecard program is the sanitation department’s “sole performance measure for monitoring the sanitation operations.” The sanitation department disputed that claim, saying it uses other sources of information, as well.
The audit found other problems with the program. Scorecard observers do “drive-by inspections” of blocks, DiNapoli wrote.
“We question whether Operations’ drive-by approach to inspections provides inspectors with a clear line of sight of the actual conditions of NYC’s streets or sidewalks, especially when inspecting areas that are blocked from view by parked cars or areas on the opposite side of the street,” the audit read.
Until last year, when the city modified its methodology, the Scorecard system focused on the same 6,899 blocks since the 1970s, ignoring areas that have developed or deteriorated in the 50 years since the program began.
The audit recommended the sanitation department improve its data collection practices by using 311 complaints, violations and other internal tools to identify areas in need of sanitation services.
David Schaeffer, the audit manager for the state’s comptroller’s office, pointed out that sidewalk litter complaints make up more than a third of 311 sanitation complaints, but they aren’t included in the sanitation department’s metrics.
“We didn't see them really collecting and bringing (data) in a way that will highlight where the problem areas are,” Schaeffer said in a phone interview on Monday.
In a follow-up this week, the state comptroller’s office criticized the sanitation department for having ignored its recommendation to improve data collection.
“For cleaner streets, the Department of Sanitation needs to clean up its operations,” DiNapoli said in a statement on Tuesday. “In 2020, we warned the department to make improvements, but our latest review found it did not implement our recommendations. New Yorkers deserve clean, livable streets — it’s time for DSNY to do more to effectively keep NYC clean, safe, and healthy.”
In response, sanitation department spokesperson Vincent Gragnani said “the city’s new cleanliness agenda is working,” but did not directly address the state comptroller’s report.
“DSNY investigates and responds to every 311 complaint we receive, and we have several different reports and dashboards that are used to identify recurring problem areas, including several developed since the release of the initial audit more than two years ago,” Gragnani said, calling DiNapoli’s “accusation” incorrect.
The dispute comes amid skyrocketing complaints about sanitation. Brooklyn Councilmember Sandy Nurse, who chairs the sanitation committee, told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer last month there has been a 52% increase citywide in 311 complaints about “dirty conditions, missed collections, and rat sightings.” Such complaints went from 97,000 in 2020 to 147,000 in 2021, Nurse said.
The city did fulfill one recommendation from the comptroller: it updated its methodology for the Scorecard program. The city will now survey all 172,499 blocks over time and share higher-quality data with the sanitation department, said City Hall spokesperson Jonah Allon.
But the Scorecard stats themselves remained baffling to people interviewed by Gothamist.
N’gahi Garris questioned whether his current neighborhood of Bed-Stuy was actually in worse shape than Parkchester, where he grew up. According to Scorecard, 0.77% of the Bronx neighborhood’s streets were filthy last year.
“I don't think the Bronx is any worse or better. I think they're all equally the same, if I'm being honest. We just got grunge to us,” Garris said. “It's what's New York City about us.”
With reporting from Rebecca Redelmeier.