nycha

Public Housing Workers Tried to Fool the Feds on Building Repairs

NYCHA’s outpost on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn
NYCHA’s outpost on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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When prosecutors last year charged NYCHA with hiding scandalous conditions in many of its 174,000 apartments, they highlighted some of the most blatant tactics used to fool federal inspectors.

Before investigators with the Department of Housing and Urban Development would arrive, prosecutors said, NYCHA staff would cover broken doors with plywood.

Or they’d tack “Danger: Do Not Enter” signs on rooms that wouldn’t pass inspection. Or they’d plug and paint over holes in apartment walls gnawed by rodents.

NYCHA signed an agreement Jan. 31 promising, among other things, to end the longstanding tradition of deliberately misleading HUD.

Now it’s happening again.

In the last few weeks, NYCHA has quietly suspended three employees for submitting deceptive documentation during HUD inspections. The staffers allegedly falsely claimed that required repairs had been completed, THE CITY has learned.

Three more NYCHA employees involved in HUD inspections were given “written instructional memorandums” about the right way to do things when the feds show up.

Barbara Brancaccio, a NYCHA spokesperson, confirmed the actions Friday, saying “documentation created by NYCHA staff in relation to certain (HUD) inspections was found to be inaccurate.”

Crumbling Housing Stock

Most of the apartments in the nation’s biggest housing authority are more than 60 years old and have long deteriorated as the authority struggles to keep up with a backlog of repair requests. NYCHA’s 400,000 tenants have endured years of squalid conditions, from lead paint to toxic mold to rat invasions.

HUD provides NYCHA with most of its funding, footing the bill for nearly 70% of its operating expenses and more than 90% of its big-ticket capital improvement upgrades, like roof repairs and boiler replacements. To keep the HUD money flowing, the authority must prove it’s taking care of its properties.

Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Federal workers regularly spot-check the physical and financial condition of housing developments during so-called Public Housing Assessment System (PHAS) inspections. The physical examinations of apartments count most.

HUD assigns scores, on a scale of 1 to 100, that rank developments from “troubled” to “high performer.” Developments must score above 60 points to pass.

Since 2010, NYCHA has always scored above 80, the benchmark for “standard performer.”

Masking Problems

But in a June 2018 complaint, prosecutors in Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman’s office said NYCHA’s HUD scores were “not reliable.” They charged that for years the city housing authority “systematically deceived HUD’s inspectors by concealing the true condition of NYCHA housing.”

“NYCHA,” the prosecutors said, “goes to great lengths to mask problems that otherwise exist year-round.”

Berman’s office found NYCHA workers would run ahead of the HUD inspectors and rig up bogus fixes in buildings about to be inspected.

At some developments, NYCHA workers shut off water in buildings with leaks  — and turned it back on once HUD was gone, prosecutors. One NYCHA supervisor would install a working refrigerator motor inside busted roof fans to create the illusion of a working machine.

NYCHA even distributed internal “Quick Fix Tips” to staff on how to fool HUD. One tip suggested “painted cardboard” could sub for missing ceiling tiles.

Housing Secretary Ben Carson and Mayor Bill de Blasio sign a deal to have a new federal monitor oversee NYCHA, Jan. 31, 2019.
Housing Secretary Ben Carson and Mayor Bill de Blasio sign a deal to have a new federal monitor oversee NYCHA, Jan. 31, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

All of this was highlighted in the prosecutor’s report that led to the Jan. 31 agreement to bring in a federal monitor.

Signed by Berman, Mayor Bill de Blasio, NYCHA General Manager Vito Mustaciuolo, Housing Secretary Benjamin Carson and city Corporation Counsel Zachary Carter, the agreement explicitly stated, “NYCHA will not use deceptive practices with regard to PHAS inspections.”

The promise didn’t last long.

‘Safety Deficiencies’ Cited

In August, workers with NYCHA’s newly formed Compliance Division found issues when they began looking into documentation staff had filed stating they had repaired “exigent health and safety deficiencies” uncovered by HUD inspectors.

The deficiencies included such flaws as exposed wires, open electrical panels and blocked exits. HUD required they be fixed within 24 hours and that NYCHA staff submit closed work orders certifying that the jobs were done.

As the Compliance Department workers began double-checking the paperwork, they soon found that deficiencies “marked as closed in the paperwork have in fact not been repaired or not repaired to industry standards,” Brancaccio told THE CITY.

The three employees facing suspension enter a hearing process that could take months. Brancaccio declined to name the workers or the developments involved, nor would she reveal the specific deficiencies falsely certified as being fixed.

Bart Schwartz, NYCHA’s federal monitor, approved an action plan last week designed to crack down on deceptive practices during HUD inspections.

NYCHA Federal Monitor Bart Schwartz speaks at a community advisory meeting, Oct. 7, 2019.
NYCHA Federal Monitor Bart Schwartz speaks at a community advisory meeting, Oct. 7, 2019. Photo: Screenshot from NYCHA Monitor/YouTube

Under the plan, NYCHA will provide staff by mid-December with standardized instructions to end the bad behavior — including barring slapdash “just-in-time” repairs. Some 1,700 staff will be trained by September, with another 3,000 the following year.

“Deceptive practices will not be tolerated and NYCHA will be preventing these practices in a number of ways,” Brancaccio said.

The plan approved by Schwartz “perpetuates a cultural change that will involve ongoing training, communications, monitoring, and accountability to ensure change takes root across the agency,” she added.

Montieth Illingworth, a spokesperson for Schwartz, declined comment.

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