Residents at Brooklyn’s largest public housing complex know the drill all too well.
When their cooking gas gets shut off, always without warning, their lives are upended for days, weeks or even months at a time.
Tenants are forced to cook on electric hot plates issued by the New York City Housing Authority — one per household — making some meals impossible while even simple dishes take twice as long.
Many residents reluctantly spend their tight budgets on takeout food.
It happened yet again on Saturday at the Red Hook Houses, when NYCHA turned off the gas in two buildings — at 791 Hicks Street and 606 Clinton Street — after detecting a leak in the basement. Nearly 100 households still have no gas nearly a week later.
“I come home from work tired. I don’t want to go through all that because I know it’s gonna take me a longer time to prepare my meal, so I don’t even want to,” said Petra Vargas, 62, a grocery worker who’s lived in her Hicks Street building for 39 years.
“I wind up spending money ordering out,” she added.
The gas outages are part of a pattern at the complex, with months-long disruptions becoming almost normal over at least the last five years.
In March, more than 40 residents filed a civil lawsuit against NYCHA in Brooklyn Housing Court to demand the agency restore gas service, provide rent reductions and reimburse legal fees.
The tenants in the suit have their gas back but are still working toward a settlement for the repairs, said their lawyer, Kristie Ortiz-Lam of Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A. Their next court date is May 14, she said.
NYCHA spokesperson Nekoro Gomes said the gas service disruptions are a matter of public safety, adding that the authority is securing a contractor to make lasting repairs.
But he couldn’t give an exact timeframe for when the latest residents to lose gas service would be able to fire up their stoves again.
“While we understand gas service interruptions are inconvenient, we also want to ensure our residents’ safety as we work to restore service as quickly as possible,” said Gomes.
Local Pols Try to Light a Fire
On Wednesday, four elected officials representing the neighborhood wrote to NYCHA and the city’s Department of Buildings to request immediate inspections of the basements, and called for expedited repairs.
U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez, Assemblymember Marcela Mitaynes, state Senator Jabari Brisport and Councilmember Carlos Menchaca, all Democrats, signed the letter.
“While our offices are keenly aware of the lack of federal, state and municipal financial support for the New York City Housing Authority, the NYCHA community has demanded change and repairs for decades,” the missive reads. “The recent incident only makes it clear that our city has a long way to go in order to adequately provide dignified and safe homes for all members of our community.”
On Thursday, Mitaynes and Councilmember Antonio Reynoso (D-Brooklyn/Queens), who represents parts of Bushwick, Williamsburg and Ridgewood, stood with residents in front of reporters and TV cameras to demand repairs. They said NYCHA, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo should be all held accountable for the mess.
“At some point we have to say, ‘Stop! Stop with nonsense and do your job as the landlord of NYCHA, Mayor de Blasio,’” said Reynoso, who doesn’t represent the area, but is running for Brooklyn borough president.
Mitaynes, meanwhile, is among the supporters of a state bill that would give rent reductions to NYCHA tenants experiencing disruptions in their heat, water, gas or electricity service.
“During a time of a pandemic, when we need our government to step in, we are still seeing the same issues that our tenants are facing,” she said. “There’s no accountability … and to be honest, we’re tired of it.”
Firefighters as Repairmen
Residents without cooking gas are eligible to apply for hot-food restaurant vouchers through the city’s Human Resources and Administration, noted Ross Joy of the Red Hook Community Justice Center, a nonprofit group that helps tenants.
Joy said that the HRA program provides “replacement money” to residents in need, since those with federal food-stamp benefits can only buy goods to “prepare in the home.”
“But how can you prepare food in the home if you don’t have a stove?” he asked.
Joy also noted that Red Hook residents have been calling 911 to bring attention to potentially life-threatening housing maintenance and repair needs, since calling 311 and reporting their concerns to NYCHA usually ends in frustration.
“It would frequently come up in court and community conversations that people have to use 911 to get basic things fixed,” Joy said, noting that the FDNY visits the Red Hook Houses three or four times per month to respond to housing concerns.
“When NYCHA says ‘We don’t have money,’ the mayor says ‘We don’t have money to fix NYCHA’ — we are spending that money: It’s on the way the Fire Department is having to spend time coming out,” he added.
A 2020 report by the Red Hook Community Justice Center and Columbia Law School’s Community Advocacy Lab found the “average repair timeline for private landlords was 17 days,” according to data from 2019.
Average repair time at the Red Hook Houses was 125 days.
A Ticket to Hide
Substantial gas outages hit the residents of the Red Hook Houses in 2016, 2018, 2019 and 2020.
Gomes, the NYCHA spokesperson, said any resident in need of maintenance should use the MyNychaApp or call (718) 707-7771 to generate a work order ticket.
But Sherise Alicea, 47, a single parent and lifelong resident of the Red Hook Houses currently without gas, said a filing ticket doesn’t fix the problem. She said she spent almost $700 to replace her floor tile when a leaky roof led to her apartment flooding.
“I paid for it. Because they never came and you can even look at my app,” she said. “The ticket is still in there for repairs due to the flooding.”
The gas outages and other woes are occurring against the backdrop of an ongoing $550 million resiliency project to fix damage Superstorm Sandy did to the Red Hook Houses. The Housing Authority has said the loud and intrusive work won’t be done until at least 2023.
“I don’t like the way I’m living,” said Vargas, noting the maze of tall construction fences around her building. “I feel like I’m living in a war zone. I don’t even want nobody to come visit me because I’m embarrassed.”
“They’re doing it to better the area, the development. I get it,” she added. “But the way they’re doing it — I don’t understand why they couldn’t do it section per section per section, and they want to do everything at once. That’s not cool.”
Juana Narvaez, 67, a 45-year resident of the complex, said that she experienced a gas outage from last September to earlier this year and her hot plate gave her problems.
“The city has to do something to help a bit because people who live here don’t make much money,” Narvaez told THE CITY in Spanish. “They should try to make sure we’re living better because too many people here live like they’re animals… with damaged apartments, shame. That’s what it is, this gives us shame.”