Residents of New York City Housing Authority’s O’Dwyer Gardens in Coney Island are demanding compensation for 209 apartments that have been without gas for as long as six months.
“We are going to do our due diligence and ask for compensation for all these days we’re without,” said Shelia Smalls, the president of the O’Dwyer Gardens Tenant Association. “Places go years without gas, we’re not going to be those places.”
The initial outage stemmed from a broken gas line that was knocked out during contracted work in Building 6 in February, and Smalls says it hasn’t been restored since. Meanwhile, two more of the six buildings are experiencing outages: part of Building 5 lost gas in May and Building 1’s gas went out on June 24.
Smalls fears that the whole complex is going to lose gas before NYCHA fixes the issue.
“We don’t want this to happen to the rest of the buildings,” Smalls said. “Two-thirds of our buildings are down.”
“Soon none of us will have gas”
Assemblymember Mathylde Frontus — who represents a swath of southern Brooklyn including Coney Island, and has been an advocate for the residents of O’Dwyer Gardens throughout the outages — echoed Smalls’ concern that no one will have gas if NYCHA doesn’t act now.
“[A flyer for the June 27 rally] said ‘soon none of us will have gas’, and that’s just what the mood is,” Frontus said. “Everyone’s like … if they keep doing this, before you know it there’ll be nothing, there’ll be no gas there for any of us and that’s just unacceptable.”
The tenant association president told Brooklyn Paper that the housing authority provided hot plates and crock pots following the interruption at Building 6, which she argues is not enough to feed a family.
“Some people have to go out and buy food two times a day,” Smalls said. “That little burner they got you can’t sit and feed a family of five on two burners.”
Earlier this year, Frontus took Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso down to tour the complex. After the visit, Reynoso’s office provided full meals to residents three days a week for five weeks. But Smalls says the outages have gone on much longer than the meal delivery did.
“Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays. We got meals three times a week for five weeks,” Smalls said. “We had good, hot, wholesome meals. A starch, meat, and a vegetable. When that ran out, we were on our own.”
A NYCHA representative told Brooklyn Paper that restoring gas service is a huge process that requires a number of partners and steps, but that the agency has secured a vendor to begin the work.
The agency also distributed meals over last weekend, after the third building’s gas was disconnected, the spokesperson said.
“Gas service restoration work is a matter of public safety, that involves multiple partners and steps. NYCHA has secured a vendor to begin work to restore gas service at this development and distributed meals to residents this past Friday and Saturday,” Nekora Gomes said in a statement. “The Authority is also working with the vendor to connect residents with additional resources until the issue has been resolved.”
But residents say they didn’t hear much from the city’s public housing authority until Building 1’s gas went out in June. Smalls said the agency apologized and provided burritos and pizza for tenants, but just dropped them off in the lobby unattended — leaving Smalls’ team to distribute the food.
“They knew they were wrong, they apologized immediately. They said pizza and burritos which I do not consider a meal,” Smalls said. “They sent that to the lobby and left it unattended so they just dropped off food.”
Adding insult to injury, Smalls said, the meals were far from nutritious.
“A lot of people didn’t want the pizzas because I have a lot of elderly and people who are used to having a full meal,” she told Brooklyn Paper. “Pizzas are not a meal and neither are burritos.”
Repairs finally begin at O’Dwyer Gardens
At a June 27 press conference, tenants banded together, flanked by Frontus, to draw attention to their ongoing situation. The next day, NYCHA reps said they would send plumbers to cut the gas line so that the agency can begin repairs immediately — months after the first interruption.
“I have notice from residents saying that they were in their house all day yesterday,” Smalls said, “and [some saying] nobody came.”
A NYCHA spokesperson confirmed that work has begun to restore gas service to the 120 apartments impacted from the June 24 outage, with work expected to begin work on the apartments that have been without gas since February on July 5.
Smalls argued that all of this could have been avoided if NYCHA invited resident leaders to the table with contractors.
“The big mistake that they made was not having resident leaders at the table when they wrote the contract with this contractor because a person like me would hold them responsible,” Smalls said. “They are not liable for it, NYCHA’s liable because they didn’t put the clause in the contract.”
Frontus told Brooklyn Paper she is going to use her platform to advocate for the residents of O’Dwyer Gardens to help ensure NYCHA does its job and treats its residents with dignity.
She is currently connecting Smalls with lawyers because she believes it is time to take legal action against the housing authority.
“They are not getting what they paid for and it’s not right,” Smalls said. “It’s not like we’re begging for something. We are paying for a service that we are not receiving. And they need to reimburse us for the inconvenience they are causing us.”
But above all else, Smalls said she and her fellow tenants just want a decent quality of life.
“We don’t want to live like this. We have people paying over $2,000 in rent,” she said. “We have a working class over here, a hard-working class and people are paying high rents.”
On top of cost, Frontus said issues like these have major psychological impacts on people living in subhuman conditions.
“It’s undignified to let people live that way…and you don’t have to be a psychologist to see there is a correlation between how people live and how people behave,” she said. “If you put a group of people in a place that is well-maintained, that is manicured, that is clean, people feel good about themselves, they feel like their lives have meaning.
“If you put people in a place where you let a leak fall on their head, their bathrooms don’t work, you are sending a message that they’re not important,” Frontus said. “That’s what that says to people.”