Less than a week after New York City announced its first confirmed case of COVID-19, Melanie Aucello reached out to officials with the New York City Housing Authority asking about precautionary measures the agency was taking to protect tenants in her Kips Bay apartment building.
Another week passed before the housing authority announced its cleaning and outreach efforts. By then, the city had 154 verified cases. Still, Aucello, who is president of the tenants’ association at 344 East 28th Street, says she saw little change in the roach-infested lobby and elsewhere in the building as she nervously watched reports of the city’s cases balloon well into the thousands.
Now, with more than 13,000 cases citywide, Aucello and other frustrated tenants have taken it upon themselves to make up for what they claim is a lack of cleaning in the building by sanitizing commonly-touched surfaces with their own supplies.
“We wipe down our own door handles, elevator buttons, mailboxes,” says Aucello, whose 250-unit development is across the street from Bellevue Hospital. “We check in on each other because if we waited for NYCHA we would all get sick.”
As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases climb, NYCHA says it is aggressively cleaning its 2,200 buildings three times a week through a combination of in-house staff and outside cleaning services.
These daily cleanings are concentrated in high-traffic areas across the agency’s 361 complexes, such as common area doors, mailboxes, and elevator controls. At its 71 seniors-only buildings, NYCHA hired EastCo Building Services to clean five times a week with “a hospital-grade disinfecting spray that kills viruses” called Smart Touch; those same surfaces are then treated with BioProtect, a water-based protective barrier, that remains on surfaces for up to 90 days. This method will be utilized on a 30-day cycle as an extra precaution in addition to basic cleanings, according to the authority.
These measures are crucial to keeping residents healthy at NYCHA developments, where nearly a quarter of the authority’s 400,000 residents are 62 or older—a group that is particularly susceptible to fatal infection by COVID-19—and where the average household income is $25,007, according to city data.
“Since this pandemic hit New York City, NYCHA has been working around the clock to receive guidance and implement measures to ensure our approach and plans are thorough and responsive to a changing environment,” NYCHA CEO Greg Russ said in a statement, stressing that the authority’s “top priority” is the safety of its residents and employees. “We are prouder than ever of NYCHA property staff, who remain central to keeping our developments clean and sanitary.”
Still, Aucello and the residents of the East 28th Street building are not alone in their assertion that the housing authority isn’t doing enough to properly maintain some of its buildings during the COVID-19 pandemic. A tenant leader in an Upper East Side complex says the elevators and their panels are persistently sordid. “It smells like it was cleaned with a mop of urine,” says La Keesha Taylor, a resident of the John Haynes Holmes Towers in the Upper East Side. In December, tenants filed a lawsuit against NYCHA to force repairs at the complex. “It doesn’t look clean, it doesn’t smell clean,” Taylor says. “But everyone touches the buttons because they have no choice. It’s the same old, same old.” She and other residents have been using bleach wipes to clean elevator buttons and doorknobs throughout the complex.