public housing

Sliding by: NYCHA Skips Playground Inspections, Records Show

A slide was partially propped up by pieces of wood at the James Weldon Johnson Houses in East Harlem, on June 25, 2019.
A slide was partially propped up by old pieces of wood at the James Weldon Johnson Houses in East Harlem, on June 25, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The city’s Housing Authority vowed in May 2018 to inspect all of its nearly 800 playgrounds within 90 days after a damning audit found the majority were in poor condition.

That never happened.

Four months later, rusty monkey bars fell on top of two children inside the New York City Housing Authority’s James Weldon Johnson Houses in East Harlem.

Rameece Williams, who was 9 at the time, was knocked over in the August 2018 collapse, and injured his nose and mouth, according to his mother. The family intends to sue.

NYCHA has no record of any inspections at the playground before the monkey bars came crashing down, THE CITY has learned.

Nearly a year later, the monkey bars have been welded back together. The playground has a gap-ridden patchwork of safety mats and a slide being held up by hunks of wood.

“It’s just ridiculous over there,” said Cathy Gamble, 60, who has lived in the Lexington Avenue development for 30 years. “I love my grandkids. I never let them play on there.”

NYCHA playground inspections are not required by law. But an internal agency review system has been in place — and apparently largely ignored — for years.

Rules Call for Regular Looks

Under agency guidelines, a development’s groundskeeping staffer is required to inspect every playground in their purview monthly. The maintenance worker must fill out a 100-category checklist, with 11 groupings such as: “play equipment safety” and “paved areas.”

For each section, the maintenance worker must note if the spot is “good” “fair” or “unsatisfactory.” There’s also a “remarks” section.

The handwritten inspection reports are supposed to be put into NYCHA’s Maximo computer system.

In December, agency officials promised the digital system would be up and running by 2019, and all the reviews would be submitted.

An authority spokesperson said that’s being finalized.

“In recent months, we have implemented a process for documenting the playground inspection process through our automated system, and expect to complete inspections of all playgrounds this week,” said the spokesperson, Barbara Brancaccio.

A playground at the James Weldon Johnson Houses in East Harlem on June 25, 2019.
A playground at the James Weldon Johnson Houses in East Harlem on June 25, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The agency has had more than a year to address the issue.

In April 2018, an audit by the city’s Comptroller’s office found 70% of NYCHA’s playgrounds in “unsatisfactory” condition. In 25 spots, NYCHA maintenance workers recorded inaccurate information, the review said.

For example, auditors discovered a spiral metal slide with a jagged edge and other issues at the Throggs Neck Houses playground on July 24, 2017. An inspection report filed later that week indicated the entire playground was in “good” condition, aside for a curved slide rated “fair.”

City Comptroller Scott Stringer said the audit and the lack of subsequent inspections show NYCHA failed to follow its own protocol.

“That’s a management failure, plain and simple, and our children pay a dangerous price for their negligence,” Stringer said in a statement. “It’s far past time for NYCHA to get their act together, and I eagerly await evidence they have finally fulfilled their promises.”

A NYCHA spokesperson said that since the audit some inspections were completed, but they declined to give any numbers or details.

The lack of inspections comes as no surprise to city auditors, who, in a rare prediction, expressed doubt that real change would occur despite the negative findings.

“Under such circumstances, in the absence of a practical, consistently-enforced agency policy, there is little evidence to suggest that overall conditions in NYCHA’s playgrounds will improve,” the review said.

The audit made nine recommendations for the agency to better review its 788 playgrounds at 238 developments. NYCHA generally accepted all the recommendations.

A NYCHA superintendent and a housing manager are charged with overseeing the monthly inspections to make sure they are conducted and accurate. The supervisors are also responsible for any immediate fixes at dangerous spots that are ordered up.

‘I See This All the Time’

It’s unclear why the higher ups failed to ensure playground reviews were being done. Staff has been overwhelmed conducting lead paint checks in many developments, according to one agency official.

“I see this all the time,” said attorney Michael Lamonsoff, who has handled multiple playground cases against NYCHA. “A lot of playgrounds have dilapidated mats that are sticking up and causing tripping hazards for kids.”

Arianny Lilares, 2, plays at the Johnson Houses, on June 24, 2019.
Arianny Lilares, 2, plays at the Johnson Houses, on June 24, 2019. Photo: Reuven Blau/THE CITY

That’s why some parents keep their children away from the playground inside the James Weldon Johnson Houses.

“They need to fix this part. It’s terrible, said Monica Velazquez, 60, as she watched her 2-year-old granddaughter, Arianny Lilares, run around the playground on Monday.

Arianny was one of only four children playing on the rusted and dented equipment. Across the street, a recently renovated NYCHA playground  was filled with frolicking children.

That’s the only spot Amika Guest lets her three children play.

The playgrounds inside the development are “dirty and there’s a lot of people doing things that are inappropriate” like drugs and drinking, she said.

Quick Changes Promised

NYCHA is once again vowing to inspect all of its playgrounds and submit the reviews into its computer system over the next few days, following inquiries by THE CITY.

Agency officials maintain that its playgrounds are repaired as necessary, noting NYCHA has received 288 work orders for fixes since 2015. The majority of them deal with extermination on grounds, exterior lighting, painting of playground equipment and ground repairs, according to the agency.

Since March 2018 the authority has managed 55 playground improvement and renovation projects across the city at a total cost of $41.9 million.

Still, some residents remain skeptical that NYCHA officials will “get their act together,” as Stringer suggested.

“If you don’t inspect it how do you know what’s going on?” asked Gamble.

“When you see the metal on the monkey bars leaning, you know something’s wrong,” she added. “They have two-by-fours holding up the slide. It’s a dump.”

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