public housing

Gnawing Problem: NYCHA Far From Meeting Rat Fix Deadline

A rat scurries through the Washington Houses in East Harlem, July 22, 2019.
A rat scurries through the Washington Houses in East Harlem, July 22, 2019. Photo: Gabriel Sandoval/THE CITY

The city Housing Authority won’t be able to meet its promised Aug. 31 deadline to clean out rats and other vermin from more than 70,000 public housing apartments, THE CITY has learned.

Most of these apartments are plagued by the ubiquitous New York City rats who preside in burrows dug around — and sometimes even inside — city Housing Authority buildings.

Under an agreement with the federal government reached in January, NYCHA promised in writing to identify the scope of the pest problem by Aug. 1 — and then rid all vermin within 30 days.

In a statement to THE CITY, NYCHA management confirmed it won’t make its deadline. A key stumbling block: The agency is required to hire hundreds more workers trained to properly do  clean-ups using what are known as “integrated pest management” (IPM) practices.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio sealed the deal with the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development on Jan. 28, NYCHA had promised it would have the IPM-trained workers in place by Aug. 1 and get the job done in a month.

On Wednesday, NYCHA General Manager Vito Mustaciuolo told THE CITY, “HUD and the federal monitor are aware of the progress NYCHA has made to date, and of the work still required for us to meet the Integrated Pest Management requirements detailed in the agreement.”

NYCHA acknowledged that the agreement requires a significant increase in staffing for extermination, maintenance and other skilled trades workers to meet the 30-day goal.

HUD and the federal monitor are now working with the Housing Authority to adjust the schedule and the pest eradication plan.

‘They Ran the Squirrels Out’

That was not great news at NYCHA’s Carey Gardens in Coney Island, where tenants Wednesday described their unwelcome furry neighbors brazenly emerging from underground fortresses like clockwork every evening as the sun begins to set.

“They coming out five, 10 at a time. At night, don’t even come outside,” said tenant Deeanna Clark, 55. “They ran the squirrels out.”

Rat burrow holes pock the ground next to a ramp leading to a daycare center, and the rodents often frolic outside the management office. Clark said sometimes she phones the office instead visiting.

NYCHA put up posters in East Harlem’s Washington Houses asking residents to help keep trash away from rats. Photo: Obtained by THE CITY

“When I do have to go in there, I have two sets of keys and I shake, shake, shake until I get in,” she added.

The rat challenge emerged last week in a report by Bart Schwartz, the federal monitor appointed to oversee the authority, The document highlighted NYCHA’s failure effort to meet many of the obligations under the agreement the city’s  agreement with the feds.

NYCHA had promised that by Aug. 1 it would provide “targeted relief” to any apartment where there’d been more than one pest infestation complaint within the last 12 months, along with adjacent units. The authority also said it would cure these infestations and fix underlying issues, such as holes in walls or leaks that enable vermin to invade living spaces, by Sept. 1.

In his report, the monitor made clear he didn’t expect NYCHA to meet its deadline.

In April 2018, de Blasio announced a “Watch Out Rats!” program to eradicate the critters from a select 10 housing developments. But the monitor’s investigators found developments not on the mayor’s list were struggling with rat hordes.

The report described a nightmarish situation at the Washington Houses in East Harlem, where compactors had been shut down and garbage stacked up in chutes to the 14th floor. Rats tenants described as “the size of cats” worked their way to the top of the trash heap and infiltrated hallways and apartments.

The monitor provided NYCHA with his findings July 17. On July 19, de Blasio announced an expansion of his rat crackdown to 60 more NYCHA developments — including the Washington Houses.

Hundreds of More Staff Needed

The scope of the problem is enormous. At the monitor’s request, NYCHA determined that 71,394 apartments with pest infestations needed to be targeted, including 18,225 primary impacted units and 53,169 adjacent units.

The authority currently employs 108 exterminators, but believes it needs 961 to get the job done.

Meanwhile, NYCHA employs not a single trained pest inspector to ensure the clean-up is actually effective — and not just a quick fix that moves the rat families from one building to another, according to the monitor.

The city Health Department says the lack of a pest inspector is a “fundamental practice deficiency,” according to the monitor’s report. Health Department pest inspectors, known as public health sanitarians, have found most NYCHA exterminators aren’t properly trained on spotting the scope of infestations.

A rat burrow at the Carey Gardens Houses in Coney Island, on July 31, 2019.
A rat burrow at the Carey Gardens Houses in Coney Island, on July 31, 2019. Photo: Gabriel Sandoval/THE CITY

Health Department officials told the monitor that NYCHA exterminators appear to play down the problem by inflating the rat count before extermination — then undercounting the remaining population “in order to show their own success.”

NYCHA also now concedes it doesn’t have the staff to address underlying issues that cause or exacerbate pest problems, such as patching holes in walls and plugging leaks.

The agency found it needs an additional 364 painters, 207 carpenters, 187 plasterers, 187 plaster helpers, 75 plumbers, 75 plumbers helpers, eight bricklayers, eight masons helpers, 639 maintenance staff and seven caretakers to do the necessary work.

Mustaciuolo told THE CITY a pilot program began in June and officials have begun moving to hire “IPM contractors as well as independent inspectors to develop the pest population baselines.”

He did not provide a new deadline for when all of this would be accomplished.

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