Red Hook demands relief

Zach Zill reports on the efforts of public housing residents to get help after Sandy.

Residents organize against the neglect of public housing in Red Hook after Hurricane SandyResidents organize against the neglect of public housing in Red Hook after Hurricane Sandy

BROOKLYN'S RED Hook neighborhood was one of the areas in New York City that was hardest hit by flooding during Hurricane Sandy. Now, residents of Red Hook Houses, the largest public housing development in Brooklyn, are organizing themselves to demand relief and accountability from the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and the government.

Red Hook Houses, with nearly 2,900 apartments and 9,000 residents, went without power and other basic services for weeks after the storm. Even now, many buildings in the development are functioning only with emergency temporary generators and boilers, meaning that individual apartments still lack heat, hot water, or electricity.

A community meeting on November 19 brought together more than 70 people, overwhelmingly residents of Red Hook Houses. Called by tenants, in conjunction with activists from Occupy Sandy and progressive community organizations such as the Red Hook Initiative (RHI), the meeting quickly became a venting session for people's frustrations.

Carol, a resident of 38 Bush Street, summed up the sentiment in the room:

We were out here without NYCHA's help for three weeks. It's been absolutely damaging. The lack of concern for residents, especially the ones who couldn't get out--the elderly and the children. My 70-year-old father lives on the top floor, and without electricity for the elevators, he hasn't been able to leave his apartment since the storm. In my building, we're still not sure if the water is safe to drink. Nobody has told us anything. My apartment is damp, cold. I've been sleeping in my coat every night. They told us to evacuate, but where can we go?

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THE GATHERING, the second meeting of this type in two weeks, became a planning session for a series of actions aimed at pressuring NYCHA and the city and state governments to respond to the needs of public housing residents. The first action will be a rally outside NYCHA's headquarters at 250 Broadway in Manhattan at 9 a.m. on November 27. The protest's primary demand will be for NYCHA to forgive November and December rent for all tenants.

Residents present at the meeting were particularly insulted that the housing authority is demanding that rent be paid as normal, while promising to issue a rent credit in January--even though tenants are suffering the impact of the storm now.

NYCHA Chairman John Rhea, who makes $200,000 a year, had this to say about the rent issue: "Hang in there. You're going to get a rent credit. It's a nice little Christmas present."

"Who has money to pay for rent right now?" shouted one person in the meeting. Several tenants reported losing hundreds of dollars worth of groceries during Sandy. Many others were temporarily unable to work during the storm and its aftermath and have yet to make up for lost wages.

NYCHA officials have reported that 81,000 public housing residents across 421 buildings lost power, heat and hot water during Sandy. It took weeks for most of those services to return after the storm. Billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg rushed to re-open Wall Street less than a week after Sandy, but has been largely silent about the plight of thousands of NYCHA tenants, while backing NYCHA's demand that rent be paid.

Bloomberg has largely focused on cultivating positive press coverage of the city's response to the crisis--such as NYCHA's very public announcement on November 19, the same day as the community meeting in Red Hook, that heat, hot water and power had been restored for all NYCHA residents. This claim, repeated in dozens of media outlets the next day, was obviously contradicted by the testimony of dozens of residents present at the meeting.

To add insult to injury, NYCHA organized a last-minute "information session" in Red Hook at 5:30 p.m. that day, only 30 minutes before the scheduled community meeting. Organizers decided to push the community meeting back a half an hour to wait for residents who attended the NYCHA event.

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THE MEETING on November 19 and the rally on November 27 represent important first steps in organizing New York's working-class communities affected by Sandy and largely ignored or forgotten by the city in the wake of the storm.

The main demand decided upon at the meeting is for NYCHA to credit tenants both November and December rent--and instead to seek money from the tens of billions of dollars in federal relief that is expected to flow into the city. Also discussed were demands for the removal of NYCHA chairman John Rhea and Red Hook West property manager Tasha Smith, as well as for community control of the reconstruction process.

Participants in the meeting discussed outreach work to ensure more residents of the Red Hook community will attend the rally, and also expressed a desire to reach out to public housing residents in other affected neighborhoods, such as Gowanus, Coney Island and the Rockaways.

If successful, the rally on the 27th may be followed up by another action at NYCHA's next board meeting, scheduled for December 5 and open to the public. The New York Daily News reported on November 23 that NYCHA has already been forced to agree not to take action against any tenants who are late with December rent--showing that community outrage and protest has already had an impact.

Another factor impacting NYCHA's decision is the fact that the authority was already under severe criticism earlier this year for not spending hundreds of millions of dollars allocated to it by the federal government for maintenance and improvement work in the projects. This money, had it been spent before the storm, surely could have helped to prevent some of the havoc wreaked by Sandy.

Valerie, a resident of 15 Bush Street who works for the city, described the impact of NYCHA's failure to storm-proof the buildings: "They've known this for years--when it rains heavily, the basement floods. This is where the boiler, the hot water heaters are located. These are repairs they should have been doing over the years, before this storm hit."

Valerie's 81-year-old mother also lives in Red Hook Houses, on the first floor of a badly flooded building. Despite her mother's medical needs--"thirty pills a day," according to Valerie--nobody from NYCHA, the Red Cross, FEMA, or the city ever came to check on her. "Only the Red Hook Initiative came by and checked," Valerie said.

Despite the city's lack of concern for working-class residents impacted by the storm, the Red Hook community meeting is a promising sign that a broader fight can be organized to defend and strengthen public services in the post-Sandy reconstruction.

This fight can and should draw on the thousands of activists and volunteers who have self-organized relief efforts in their communities and through Occupy Sandy. As one participant in the Red Hook meeting explained: "We need to make noise--but an organized noise. We need to let people know what's going on here."