Angry Residents Swarm Housing Authority Chairwoman at Harlem Event

Shola Olatoye had to defend the housing authority and its policies to frustrated tenants of the Polo Grounds Towers.

NYCHA Chairwoman Shola Olatoye tries to defend her policies from residents (Photo: Will Bredderman/New York Observer).
NYCHA Chairwoman Shola Olatoye tries to defend her policies from residents. (Photo: Will Bredderman for Observer)

Shola Olatoye, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s chairwoman of the New York City Housing Authority, was surrounded by a crowd of frustrated tenants at the Polo Grounds Towers after announcing a new $4.4 million lighting system at the development.

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The leafy, immaculately manicured courtyard where Ms. Olatoye, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance announced the new LED lamps today could not have differed more from the squalor residents described inside and behind the public housing buildings. Grumbling began among the dozen or so tenants present during the press conference, and grew into outright shouts of protest when Ms. Olatoye said she would take questions from the press before questions from the residents—and would only take the latter one-on-one.

“No, no, no, they don’t want the media to hear,” called out lifelong resident Shamika Brooks. “You need to go to the back of the projects, where they don’t clean. It’s filthy back there. It’s disgusting. This is sad.”

Ms. Brooks, who told the Observer she was an activist at the complex, said she had sent the cash-strapped housing authority scores of photos of apartments in need of repair, of glass-littered grounds, of trash bags dropped from windows into the areas behind the buildings—but saw no response. She insisted that NYCHA install more cameras to catch and deter bad actors.

“It’s disgusting, and it’s not safe for the children. It’s very dangerous here,” she said.

While the council speaker posed for photos, Ms. Olatoye wound up in the middle of a circle irate residents, nearly all demanding the same thing: that NYCHA invest in cracking down on scofflaws who improperly dispose of trash and damage property.

“Because of new residents, and—I’m not going to say it’s just new residents, it’s old residents as well—that’s not adhering to the rules and regulations. NYCHA, to me, wastes its time,” said Rhonda Bennett, another longtime advocate, shouted at the chairwoman. “Our lease is not being enforced. That’s one of the problems.”

Others complained NYCHA is not using the tools already at its disposal: the few cameras installed in some buildings and elevators. They said the authority should post stills from the video footage around the towers to expose and humiliate the residents who litter, urinate in the elevators, and commit crimes on the grounds.

“We need to be putting these people on blast,” said Ruth Mackins. “If you would take and pull the cameras, people would know we mean business and we’re not going to take no more.”

The chairwoman insisted she, with help from the de Blasio administration and the Council, was working to be more responsive to resident complaints and tracking repairs and maintenance. But she warned the results would not be immediately evident, blaming decades of under-funding from the city, state and federal government.

“This is 40 years of disinvestment and hard work that hasn’t happened, so it’s going to take some time,” she said.

Ms. Olatoye’s 15-month tenure has seen a number of large-scale investments in NYCHA, but she has faced calls for her resignation from residents, who complain that basic maintenance and repairs have slowed down under her leadership. In May, she and the administration announced a massive revitalization program called “NextGeneration,” which they claimed could turn the authority from hundred-million dollar deficits to equally large surpluses within a decade.

Angry Residents Swarm Housing Authority Chairwoman at Harlem Event