The six brick buildings sit on a hill in West Harlem winding with spacious tree-lined paths. They tower high enough to give many of the 3,000 New Yorkers that reside there enviable views of Manhattan. And on each floor of the 20-story buildings, open terraces bathe residents in light and fresh air.
But inside the apartment units of the Manhattanville Houses, a development with one of the worst maintenance backlogs in the city, living conditions have deteriorated. Leaks, crumbling walls and peeling paint have become the norm.
After years of disinvestment, and amid a pervasive culture of cover-ups it admitted to in federal court in June, the New York City Housing Authority has struggled to keep pace with basic repairs in its 325 developments. The agency faces a daunting backlog of more than 170,000 open work orders for repairs, almost double the number housing officials say they can actually manage.
To see what saving the nation’s largest public housing system really means on the ground, The Times shadowed a Nycha superintendent at the Manhattanville Houses during a recent workday.
John Sotomayor knocked on the door three times and then called out: “Housing!”
Mr. Sotomayor, a superintendent, waited patiently until Thomas Hickman opened the door. Mr. Hickman, 52, a film producer, had submitted several work order requests months ago to replace rotten kitchen cabinets he said had attracted mice.
“They had a family down there,” said Mr. Hickman, who lives in the three bedroom with his wife and bedridden mother-in-law. He said he waited in vain for Nycha to fix the problem: “They said they were coming and they never came.”
But now, in a flurry of activity, carpenters were replacing Mr. Hickman’s cabinets and plasterers had repaired the water-damaged wall behind them.
That sort of work typically takes months, not days.
For the past two months, Mr. Sotomayor has been overseeing a special program meant to speed up repairs and reduce the maintenance backlog at the Manhattanville Houses. The vast majority of open work orders at Nycha apartments require skilled trades workers like painters, plasterers, plumbers, carpenters and electricians.
The financially challenged agency, however, has struggled to hire enough of these workers, leading to interminable wait times for basic repairs. A resident with a damaged wall, for example, will wait an average of about 100 days for a plasterer and three months more for a painter to finish the job.
Under the new program, Nycha has targeted several dozen developments with the most extensive maintenance backlogs and concentrated teams of contractors and temporary skilled trades workers there to rapidly close individual work orders. The goal is to close 50,000 work orders within two years using $20 million the city allocated earlier this year.
Mr. Sotomayor, 54, continued to crisscross the sprawling grounds of the development. A Long Island native, Mr. Sotomayor juggles the daily logistics of directly supervising repairs and ensuring his team meets its performance goals at a time when all eyes are on the troubled agency.
“It’s hard to make sure that nothing falls through the cracks,” Mr. Sotomayor said.
Next up was the home of Muhammed Aklas, who was grappling with leaks in almost every room of his five-bedroom apartment. Mr. Aklas, 62, a retired cook from Bangladesh, lives with his wife on the first floor — a curse in a rundown high rise.
“When something leaks all the way up on the 20th floor, odds are it’ll leak all the way down here,” Mr. Sotomayor said.
Mr. Aklas knew the problem well. “Flooding, flooding, flooding,” he said. “Anybody has a problem and we flood. It is nasty water.”
He and his wife would be moving to a two-bedroom soon, now that their eight children were grown — he hoped to a dryer apartment.
The leaks stem from the building’s troubled piping system, a problem many Nycha buildings share. Properly addressing it requires extensive capital investments the agency currently cannot afford, Cathy Pennington, the executive vice president of operations, said in an interview.
Indeed, the task ahead is enormous. Nycha’s efforts to reduce its maintenance backlogs are dwarfed by the staggering $32 billion the agency says it needs to address the underlying problems in its aging buildings.
“If you don’t get to the capital improvements you’re constantly chasing leaks,” Ms. Pennington said.
Shirley Wright was waiting for Mr. Sotomayor. She had been waiting for more than a year.
That’s how long Ms. Wright, 70, had to fare with a massive hole in her bright yellow shower wall that was left by a worker who replaced her shower head but never returned to cover the basketball-size opening.
Mr. Sotomayor told her that the hole would be fixed that afternoon and that painters were scheduled to fix the damp, peeling paint in her kitchen and hallways later in the day.
“I’m glad it’s getting fixed,” Ms. Wright, a retired special education teacher, told him. “It just took so long.”
Both Mr. Aklas and Ms. Wright offered similar stories: They had reported the conditions for months, but every time they made a work order request, they said, the order would mysteriously get closed without any work getting done, a common complaint among residents.
In fact, a federal investigation found that during the Bloomberg administration, Nycha routinely closed work orders without doing any repairs in order to artificially lower the number of open maintenance requests.
Nycha officials, however, argue that tenants are often not home when workers show up for repairs. At least one tenant refused to let plasterers in for a scheduled repair during The Times’s visit.
Three floors below, Orelis Rodriguez, 55, immediately recognized Mr. Sotomayor when she swung open her door. Mr. Sotomayor had spent the better part of the previous evening in her apartment fixing a toilet flange one of his workers had accidentally broken.
Workers had been scheduled to repair her kitchen cabinets, but soon discovered other issues in the two-bedroom apartment: a broken pipe, disintegrating kitchen walls, peeling paint — and the broken toilet. Mr. Sotomayor said he had expedited her repairs so they would be completed before a chemotherapy appointment she had the following week.
“Housing says they don’t have money and I feel bad for them,” Ms. Rodriguez, originally from the Dominican Republic, said in Spanish. “But I pay my rent.”
Back at his makeshift command center, Mr. Sotomayor added meticulous, handwritten notes to a list detailing the 1,500 backlogged work orders at the Harlem development. In two months, his workers had gone through half of the list, or, as he calls it, “The Bible.” Then he filed some recently finished repair jobs, including a new apartment door that should have been installed a year ago.
A former engineer in the Navy, Mr. Sotomayor is a versatile fixer with a no-nonsense attitude. He has been at Nycha for more than 20 years, first as a maintenance worker and now as a superintendent. Mr. Sotomayor, who spends his spare time repairing and racing old hot rods, said he stopped seeking promotions within the agency a long time ago.
“I don’t like sitting behind a desk playing politics,” he said, his tattoo-covered arms stretched over the plastic folding table. “I prefer to be out on the field.”
He said his guiding principle in reducing the overwhelming number of backlogged repairs was to try to keep tenants happy:
“Tenants are already upset with Housing not addressing their concerns right off the bat. So I try to minimize the visits, do the work and get out.”
But not all residents are satisfied.
Emma Barricelli, the president of the residents’ association at the Manhattanville Houses, said she was grateful Nycha had brought in backup. But the temporary program doesn’t address repairs submitted after late May. And she fears the backlog will grow again once Nycha shifts its temporary workers to other developments in about a month.
“They’ve been doing a hell of a lot of work,” Ms. Barricelli said, behind the desk in her office. “But it’s not fair for the residents.”
Ms. Barricelli, who has lived at the development for more than 50 years, was elected by residents to represent their interests. She knows the workers at the development by name and she has grown increasingly vocal as conditions have rapidly deteriorated.
“She’s keeping me on the hook,” Mr. Sotomayor said with a chuckle.
Another resident, Bryan Thompson, said some of the permanent maintenance workers at the development remained as bad as ever.
A month ago, he said, his upstairs neighbor used a chemical drain opener twice to unclog a shower drain. The powerful acid ate through the pipe, which leaked constantly and stained his shower walls.
He said a maintenance worker showed up twice to assess the damage, then closed the work orders without attempting to repair it.
Mr. Thompson said he repeatedly called 311, Nycha’s borough office and the main headquarters to no avail. It wasn’t until Ms. Barricelli called Nycha for him, he said, that the agency sent a plumber to fix the leak earlier this week.
“I called a couple of people that I knew and they listened,” she said. “But it should have been considered an emergency repair and fixed immediately.”
Nycha has 5,000 fewer employees than it did 10 years ago, which has compounded the self-replicating maintenance woes at its developments. The 71 temporary skilled trades workers hired for the new program are helping, but officials acknowledge they aren’t enough.
“Do we want to hire more? Absolutely, yes we do,” Ms. Pennington said. “Do we have adequate funding to hire additional staff? Absolutely no.”