It’s been more than two weeks since Superstorm Sandy hit New York City, yet thousands of people in the city’s public housing buildings are still in the cold. The city says it has restored some level of power to all housing projects, but as of Wednesday nearly 16,000 public tenants were without heat and hot water. Some remained without any reliable water — hot or cold. Also out of service were dozens of elevators impacted by the storm. One of the areas most affected has been Coney Island at the southern tip of Brooklyn, where the storm poured saltwater into basements, devastating equipment. Despite going weeks without power in some cases, the city’s public tenants are still being asked to pay their rent on time before getting a credit in January. New York City Housing Authority Chairman John Rhea drew criticism earlier this week when he called the upcoming rent credit “a nice little Christmas present.” On Wednesday, Democracy Now!’s Amy Littlefield and Martyna Starosta headed to Coney Island and filed this report.
AMY LITTLEFIELD: This is Democracy Now!'s Amy Littlefield with Martyna Starosta, and we're here in Coney Island. Now, we’re right across from the iconic Wonder Wheel Ferris wheel, which is not moving right now. But more importantly, we’re at the entrance of what’s become an ad hoc relief center for a group called People’s Relief.
ADRIEN WEIBGEN: My name is Adrien Weibgen. I’m working with People’s Relief in Coney Island. We are working with residents here, with other organizations that are working in Coney Island, to bring relief to people who are still suffering after Hurricane Sandy, especially people who are elderly and disabled and are still trapped in their highrise apartments. We, for the most part, have no experience doing disaster management or this—I mean, we have volunteer experience, but nothing of this scale.
AMY LITTLEFIELD: Adrien, why don’t you tell us a little bit about some of the cases that you’ve been seeing?
ADRIEN WEIBGEN: Yeah, so what I’m reading from now are reports about buildings that our volunteers have gone to and what they have written on these reports. This one, which came in, I guess, a couple days ago, it says of the building: “The boiler released fuel oil, and everyone had to leave. It was being pumped out as we were there. Those who stayed got sick. Two kids went to the hospital from the fumes, and there are elderly tenants.”
DEBORAH REED: My name is Deborah Reed. I am the resident association president of Coney Island Houses, and I’m also a resident here. What happened out here in Coney Island Houses, particularly, is the fact that our boilers and, you know, everything, the electrical panels and everything are in the basements of the buildings. So, as the waters rushed in from the bay and the Atlantic Ocean, it flooded our basements.
AMY LITTLEFIELD: We’re here on the 13th floor of one of the buildings in Coney Island Houses, a public housing complex. And Carmen Gonzalez has generously invited us in. And she showed us that she doesn’t have any heat or any water in her apartment right now. She’s up here on the 13th floor. This is her kitchen sink.
So, basically the water has been coming off and on recently?
CARMEN GONZALEZ: Yeah, but it’s more off than on. This is my bathroom, and I have it prepared with water to clean, keep the smell—you know, clean the house, and to flush the bathroom. And we use it also to take a wannabe bath.
AMY LITTLEFIELD: So you use a—you take a sponge bath, basically, with that water?
CARMEN GONZALEZ: Well, no, I take a bucket, and I take water out of that there. And I use the basin. And you soak yourself, and then you rinse yourself.
This is my room, and these are all the blankets that I’m using to keep warm.
AMY LITTLEFIELD: So you have four blankets and two sheets on your bed right now.
CARMEN GONZALEZ: Yes, and I have—I have about five—five different things on. And I have—
AMY LITTLEFIELD: You have five shirts on right now?
CARMEN GONZALEZ: Yes, I do. And I have a sweater. At night, I sleep with a jacket, a coat. I suffer from diabetes and neuropathy, so when it gets very cold, I feel like if my feet are going to just break, my toes.
AMY LITTLEFIELD: So, Adrien, for our radio listeners, if you can just describe what’s going on behind you right now.
ADRIEN WEIBGEN: Yeah. So we’re in a parking lot by the MCU Stadium in Coney Island. There are enormous lines of people waiting on line for everything. This is—it’s FEMA and Red Cross and other organizations that are giving away clothes and food and that kind of stuff. So, I cannot even guesstimate how many people this is. What—is this 2,000 people? And this is just right at this very instant. This parking lot is here every day. Every day it is like this.
CHANNIE HILL: My name is Miss Hill, Channie Hill, and I want to give thanks, first of all, to my lord and savior up above. And I want to say—I want to thank the people that come out and give all the stuff to the people, because we sure need it. We definitely need it.
AMY LITTLEFIELD: And where do you live, Miss Hill?
CHANNIE HILL: I live 2946 West 23rd Street.
AMY LITTLEFIELD: And is that a New York City public housing, or—
CHANNIE HILL: Yes, it is. Yes, it is.
AMY LITTLEFIELD: And we’ve heard that you all had to pay your rent up front, even though you’ve been without heat and electricity.
CHANNIE HILL: Well, you see me? I didn’t pay any rent. I didn’t pay any rent for this month. I hadn’t planned on, too, you know, because, you know, it took me back, you know. So, I don’t pay much anyway, so hopefully next month I’ll pay rent, you know.
AMY LITTLEFIELD: When was your rent due?
CHANNIE HILL: On the first of the month.
AMY LITTLEFIELD: And why did you make that decision not to pay?
CHANNIE HILL: Because of the situation I was in. And I thought it was a very good—good decision that I made.
DOMENIC M. RECCHIA: My name is Domenic M. Recchia Jr. I’m the city councilman for Coney Island for the 47th Council District. I’m also the finance chairman in the city council.
AMY LITTLEFIELD: Let me ask you—we’ve been seeing stories that residents in NYCHA housing, in public housing here in Coney Island, are being asked to pay their rent on time up front, even though some of them have been without power and heat and electricity and so forth. What do you say to that? Do you think that’s fair?
DOMENIC M. RECCHIA: NYCHA had a meeting over the weekend and said that in the—January, they will get a deduction on their rent, if not have to pay their rent. And we’re trying to work out the figures right now. And the reason for that is because they have to—it’s a bookkeeping issue. And—but we will work with NYCHA. No one is going to be thrown out of their houses. No one is going to be brought to court, brought up on eviction charges, you know, and eviction proceedings will start. All right? I will represent—I’m an attorney. I will protect any one of my constituents who get an eviction notice. They are not throwing people out of their apartments.
AMY LITTLEFIELD: But why is it that they have to pay that rent right up front? Why not just give people a waiver for this month?
DOMENIC M. RECCHIA: The way it was explained to me, it’s a bookkeeping issue, and it’s the way the books are done.
AMY LITTLEFIELD: Do you think it’s fair that people have to pay even though they’ve been living in these caves that we’re hearing about?
DOMENIC M. RECCHIA: Listen, it’s part of the process, but we—they are not forcing anybody to pay. If you cannot pay, they will work with you, and we’ll work it out. No one is being forced to pay. No one’s putting a gun to their head. John Rhea is very sympathetic and telling people we are—you’re going to get a deduction in January 1.