26 miles of scaffolding blights NYC’s public housing

No New York pedestrian would disagree with Eric Adam’s characterization of the city’s ubiquitous sidewalk sheds at stalled construction sites as “ugly little green boxes.” 

But his targeting of private buildings owners with $10,000 a month fines for scaffolding that stays up for more than 90 days without building repairs proceeding also suggests selective prosecution. 

That’s because no private building owner has more sidewalk sheds than the city’s Housing Authority.

“Almost every development has them,” observes Danny Barber, the head of NYCHA’s Council of Presidents, whose members represent tenants from each borough. “Some more than others. We all complain about it.” 

For his part, Barber, a near life-long resident of the Andrew Jackson Houses in the Bronx, dates the scaffolding there to at least September of 2013.

“It’s a degrading thing to live with,” he says.

The extent of the NYCHA scaffolding is impressive; their snaking length is measured in miles not feet, their time standing in years, not months.

NYCHA, reported here for the first time, has 137,022 linear feet of sidewalk sheds — 26 miles — installed in 114 of its developments.

That’s 6% of the 2 million linear feet of all sheds citywide.

Scaffolding surrounds the NYCHA Jackson Houses in the Bronx.
Scaffolding surrounds the NYCHA Jackson Houses in the Bronx.
Stephen Yang

NYCHA estimates that sheds have been up for up to 8 years — although residents like Danny Barber report much longer duration. 

In its most recent (2023) “physical needs assessment”, the Authority estimates that its buildings need no less than $3.2 billion in “façade repairs” in order to comply with Local Law 11. 

That’s the law that calls for façade inspections to be made at least every five years and repairs to be made to unsafe buildings over six stories high — at the risk of fines and imprisonment. 

Keep in mind that NYCHA properties are not midtown commercial buildings. 

Danny Barber
Danny Barber, Head of NYCHA’s Council of Presidents and resident of the Jackson Houses, has been a critic of the scaffolding for years.
Stephen Yang

They are residential apartment complexes whose entrance ways are blocked by the scaffolding, where, as Barber puts it, “the lighting is not the best.”

Erected to protect residents from falling debris when building inspections identify the need for repairs to brick facades, for instance, they remain up indefinitely when repairs do not occur — no unusual occurrence for a public housing system with an estimated $80 billion renovation backlog.

They are worse than unsightly. 

Their dark spaces shield criminal activity and block the scrutiny of the security cameras NYCHA has installed at great expense.

As the NYPD’s former Chief of Department Carlos Gomez put it during his tenure as department’s Chief of Housing, they are threat to the “physical security” of public housing tenants, a “refuge for criminal activity” and “places to store contraband.” 

They contribute, in other words, to the disproportionate violent crime that occurs in and around the projects by providing safe spaces for criminal, not law-abiding residents. 

It’s not as if this is a new problem.

NYCHA Jackson Houses in the Bronx.
Scaffolding shields criminal activity and block the security cameras NYCHA has installed at great expense.
Stephen Yang

In September of 2014, then Mayor Bill de Blasio, in a news conference with Al Sharpton at the Lincoln Houses in East Harlem (one of seven dilapidated projects named for US Presidents), pledged with no small fanfare that taking down the miles of sheds there was the first step toward removing “all of the sheds from past projects” over the course of the next year.  

“They’re a part of the landscape and a really bad part of the landscape,” he said, “and they’re being removed.”. He called doing so “an order from the top”.

Given that history, It’s  easy to understand why public housing  tenants are cynical about political promises. 

So don’t expect the Department of Buildings, now targeting commercial property owners, to start levying those $10,000 fines on NYCHA, as well-deserved as they might be.

They’d only make matters worse by cutting into the Authority’s budget.

Yes, Catch-22 is what one finds when the city is both inspector and owner of buildings. 

NYCHA today makes no pretense that it can rapidly remove all its scaffolding;  it reports that it’s seeking $323 million in state funding for façade repairs which — if obtained — would allow it to remove some 39,515 linear week of sheds, a bit more than a quarter of the total — IF the funds come through and IF NYCHA can spend them effectively. It would be at least a decent down payment.

To make all this even worse, the NYCHA sheds are not only ugly and dangerous — they continue to be necessary.

At the Jackson Houses alone, in the past three months, bricks from building facades have fallen, sparking those below only because of striking the ugly green boxes.

In May, bricks fell from the 15th floor of the building at 3505 Park Avenue, a building NYCHA inspectors had designated as unsafe eight years earlier, in 2016.

Scaffolding surrounds the NYCHA Jackson Houses in the Bronx.
The scaffolding at the Jackson Houses did actually come in handy in the past three months when bricks from facades fell.
Stephen Yang

Try getting away with that if you own a private apartment or office building. 

 “I’ve had mixed feelings about the sheds after that,” says Danny Barber. NYCHA itself concedes the point. Says interim CEO Lisa Bova-Hyatt: “The safety of our residents is our top priority”, as she put it at the Adams’ event announcing the new “get sheds down” initiative.

In other words, the NYCHA scaffolding problem is just another symptom of the vast maintenance and repair problems the Authority has not found a way to address — other than blaming “federal disinvestment,” as Bova-Hyatt says. 

But money alone cannot address the dysfunction that has led the Authority to fall under the scrutiny of a federal monitor. NYCHA and City Hall emphasize the potential of the new PACT (Permanent Affordability Commitment Together) program, which enables private investment in public housing renovation — but it’s been slow to get started and contains any number of poison pills such as costly union labor requirements and resident approval and employment.

Scaffolding surrounds the NYCHA Jackson Houses in the Bronx.
NYPD’s former Chief of Department Carlos Gomez says long-term scaffolding threatens the “physical security” of public housing tenants.
Stephen Yang

The Adams administration does suggest a good interim ameliorative: See-through netting to replace scaffolding, an approach it says applies to NYCHA as well as commercial buildings.

Let’s see whether it will be any more effective than its predecessors in implementing such promises, when it comes to public housing.

It effectively concedes that any progress will be slow, by noting that NYCHA will also consider “more aesthetically pleasing” versions of the sheds.

In the meantime, the Adams administration should be mindful of the old adage about those in glass houses and stones — or, in this case, falling bricks.

Howard Husock is an American Enterprise Institute senior fellow.

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