The City Council held a hearing Thursday on how the New York City Housing Authority responded to the effects of Hurricane Sandy, while demonstrators beforehand said tenants should not pay rent for days they lacked basic utilities following the storm.
Housing Authority General Manager Cecil House and top officials in the agency submitted testimony about the impact that the agency absorbed from the hurricane and took lawmakers' questions.
Hurricane Sandy left 402 housing authority buildings without power, House testified, affecting 80,000 residents. Despite problems tracking down generators and boilers, he noted services were restored within three weeks.
"We believe the actions we took brought back essential services to NYCHA residents as quickly as possible given the unprecedented challenges we faced," House said.
Council members disagreed.
"No one expected good news in the days after Sandy, but they wanted to know what the truth was," said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. "Even if it was that they were going to be out of their homes for a really long period of time, they needed to know. And I was frustrated in how challenging that was."
Councilman Domenic Recchia, who represents Coney Island, demanded to know who was in charge there.
"You know why you can't answer the question? Because there wasn't anyone responsible to go to on the ground," Recchia said. "That's the point I am making. I couldn't find who was in charge, what was going on in what building. Self service was out. And you can't even answer who was in charge."
Thursday’s oversight hearing examining the Housing Authority’s performance post-Hurricane Sandy was missing one key player: the agency’s head, chairman John Rhea.
"Chair Rhea is on jury duty, and the authority did notify us of that," Quinn said at the hearing.
That, it turned out, was a miscommunication. Rhea wasn’t on jury duty Thursday. He never planned to attend the hearing. So, late in the day, Quinn said she’ll ask him to testify at a second hearing.
The housing authority officials who were present absorbed criticism for, among other things, failing to provide the agency’s emergency plan.
"I would like an answer before the end of this hearing from City Hall about when will get that plan. and I do not ever want the authority to come back again to this body having requested a plan and not having gotten an answer," Quinn said.
Officials acknowledged one problem is convincing more residents to evacuate.
Housing authority officials talked about the outreach they did in advance of the storm, including door-knocking, distributing fliers, sending out automated phone calls and having police officers announce evacuation notices on loudspeakers.
They said they reached out in particular to seniors, mobility impaired residents and residents on life-sustaining equipment. They said they have lists of residents with those special needs, but said they're restricted in part because they cannot legally mandate residents to provide that kind of information.
Before the council hearing began, public housing residents gathered with elected officials on the steps of City Hall to demand that tenants of housing authority buildings should not have to pay rent for days in which they did not receive services like heat or electricity following the storm.
"I have two kids, and I don't think that's not right for us to go through what we've gone through," said a public housing resident. "We had to get two sweaters, two [pairs of] socks and shirts, because there's no electricity in the house. We don't have no gas. We have no hot water, no heat."
"Promises were made to the residents of NYCHA, and those promises must be kept," Brooklyn Councilwoman Letitia James said. "And at this time, we demand that these promises be kept and their rent is adjusted to reflect the fact that their homes, their castles, their apartments were uninhabitable."
Housing authority officials said they have approved $5 million worth of credit that should be applied to housing authority residents for the days they were without essential services, but residents who spoke at the earlier press conference said they have not received full refunds from those days.
The housing authority was out surveying residents in Red Hook Thursday, asking how the response and inquiring about what problems residents may still have.
Belfor, a company working for the city, is in Red Hook overseeing the remediation of basements that flooded during Sandy.
The housing authority said it had restored power to all affected buildings by November 14, but that meant the power was simply hooked back up to the grid in those buildings. It took much longer for power to return to those buildings consistently.
Residents complained it also took a long time to get heat or hot water.
"We had no heat, hot water or electricity for a month. It came on, and then FEMA came and they said that I wasn't qualified for FEMA or anything," said one resident. "Some of the lights still go out in the hallway, even those these people are here every day having the work done. Which kind of work they're doing, I don't know."
"I believe they could've done a lot better than what they did," said another resident. "It's a little slow. The process was a little slow, but, you know, what can you do?"
There are still portable boilers attached to buildings in order to provide heat.
A hearing Friday will focus on public utilities and how the power network and the communications network held up during the storm. Officials from Con Edison and Verizon are expected to testify.