Testimony at Hearing on Lighting and Safety in Wake of Akai Gurley Shooting

David R. Jones

President and CEO,
Community Service Society

Oversight Hearing: The Relationship Between
Lighting and Safety in the Wake of the Akai Gurley Shooting
City Council Committee on Public Housing
December 16, 2014

Thank you for this opportunity to bear witness to the needless, tragic death of Akai Gurley in a dark, unlighted stairwell of Pink Houses. We extend our deepest condolences to his loved ones, as well as our concern for others who may be similarly at risk.

From what we know, the factors that contributed to his death are confounding: a building elevator that was so dysfunctional that Akai and his partner, on the seventh floor, chose not to wait any longer and instead proceeded down an unlit stairwell. A stairwell that we understand was pitch-dark—the lights hadn’t been working for weeks—even though it is a critical path of egress for residents in case of fire or other emergency. Two police officers on the eighth floor conducting a vertical patrol in the same stairwell, one with a drawn gun. 

If there is blame for this tragic event, it is a shared blame: The police policies and practices that made this possible need to be reassessed. So too do the defects in NYCHA management that allowed these disastrous building conditions to persist.  Whether the police and building management ever communicated about building conditions and their danger to public safety we have no way of knowing.

But we have to understand that the building problems that contributed to Akai’s death—the maintenance failures, the elevator problem—are not unique to Pink Houses. Unfortunately, they are systemic—occurring no doubt at many of NYCHA’s 334 developments at this moment. Over the last 15 years, NYCHA residents have had to put up with a rising incidence of apartment defects, badly needed repairs, and long delays in getting them.(1) Between 2002 and 2011 NYCHA conditions had deteriorated to a level far worse than those facing low-income tenants in the private rental market. 

Where does the responsibility fall?  It falls on the shoulders of government—federal, state, and city governments that have shortchanged NYCHA since the late 1990s and failed its residents.  Over most of its 80 years NYCHA held a national reputation as the largest public housing program in the country—179,000 units housing a population of a half-million—and arguably its best.  Among large-city housing authorities NYCHA has an exceptional track record; compare it to others—like Chicago, St. Louis, Atlanta, Newark—that have undertaken massive demolition and conversion.

Despite NYCHA’s track record, since the late 1990s it has experienced a perfect storm of government disinvestment—at all levels of government—that has contributed to its financial and physical decline. At present NYCHA is running an annual operating deficit of $99 million, with an estimated backlog on the order of $17 billion in major capital improvements. Beginning in 1998, Governor Pataki terminated operating subsidies to NYCHA’s 15 state-financed developments, leaving it with an annual operating shortfall of $60 million. Mayor Bloomberg followed suit in 2003 and terminated subsidies to 6 city-financed developments, adding another $30 million to the annual operating shortfall.  The federal government had been providing close-to-starvation funding since the Reagan administration, but it instituted further cuts during the Bush administration.

The results: In order to shore up its growing operating deficit, NYCHA cut operations by reducing its workforce headcount by over 25 percent, from about 15,000 to 11,000, leaving many developments with inadequate management/maintenance staff.  Overtime and outside contracts for repairs were also surgically cut. Even worse, the Authority plowed over $600 million in its capital funds into operations to cover the gap, which only made matters worse by deferring needed building improvements and accelerating deterioration.  

Akai and the residents of Pink Houses deserved more from government. So do all 500,000 NYCHA residents today.  It may be the case that local NYCHA management at Pink Houses might have done a better job, seeing that the elevators were functioning, that the stairwells were well-lit and stayed that way. If vandalism was a perennial cause of the dark-out, someone should have looked into tamper-proof fixtures or other alternatives.

But the problems go well beyond Pink Houses, they are systemic and our governments bear a large share of the responsibility. Unfortunately, we cannot rely on Washington at the moment to provide adequate funding to restore and sustain our public housing. That responsibility falls on the state and the city at present, both of which boast an historically strong commitment to affordable housing. To stem the deterioration at Pink Houses and restore all our public housing developments, we are calling for a New York State/City partnership that commits $2 billion in capital funding over the next 10 years. At the very least, Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio should sign an agreement to dedicate Battery Park City excess revenues—$400 million expected over the next 10 years—to major infrastructural improvements at NYCHA.

Nothing can make up for the tragic death of Akai Gurley. But a new State/City initiative, a commitment to restore our public housing and protect its residents would be a fitting tribute, one that would help see that the conditions that contributed to his death do not happen again.

 

(1) For a fuller treatment of the issues, see the CSS report, Strengthening New York City’s Public Housing: Directions for Change (July, 2014).

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