There’s no quarantine baking for the residents of 303 Vernon.
That’s because the NYC Housing Authority building in Bed-Stuy has been without cooking gas since March 30th, and there’s no clear timeline for it to be restored. Denene Witherspoon, the president of the Tenant Association, said she was told it could be six more weeks. In the meantime, the 576 residents have been given one hot plate to cook on per unit, regardless of whether one person lives there or eight.
“A meal that would take 30 minutes now takes 3 hours,” said Schedell Ingram, 47, who shares an apartment with three others. With only one burner, even a simple dinner like pasta and meat sauce has to be prepared in time-consuming stages: first waiting for the water to boil, then cooking the pasta, then taking the pasta off the heat to prepare the sauce, which needs to be hot enough to reheat the pasta when the meal is served.
“I’m starting my Sunday dinner today,” Ingram said on Saturday morning.
Gas outages have been an ongoing problem at NYCHA buildings for years, but the coronavirus pandemic has made bad living situations even more unendurable. According to a city website there are currently gas outages at 49 NYCHA buildings across the five boroughs, and eight of those impact entire buildings or developments, affecting hundreds of residents. Landlords are required by law to provide tenants with gas.
“NYCHA isn’t immune from the Warranty of Habitability just because it’s public housing,” said Miles Walser, a staff attorney with the tenants rights unit at the NY Legal Assistance Group.
Residents of NYCHA buildings without gas service have had to spend money on cooking appliances like rice cookers, toaster ovens, and crock pots to make up for not having a stove, at a time when many New Yorkers have lost their jobs or been furloughed. Meanwhile, many restaurants have closed up shop, including most of the city’s Chinese takeout spots, limiting the options of affordable prepared foods. Witherspoon said some of her neighbors have racked up bills in the hundreds or thousands ordering delivery.
Witherspoon, 51, has been putting in full-time, unpaid hours trying to make sure that elderly and disabled residents and families with small children in her building have food to eat. On Saturday, she sprayed disinfectant on the folding tables that make up the impromptu food distribution area in her ground floor office in anticipation of a delivery of hundreds of hot meals from Peaches HotHouse Fort Greene, a nearby restaurant, which were donated through the nonprofit World Central Kitchen and ferried to the housing complex by volunteers with the mutual aid group Bed-Stuy Strong.
World Central Kitchen is providing 303 Vernon with 400 hot meals six days a week, which isn’t enough for every resident to get one, but does help the most vulnerable. Witherspoon often delivers these meals to more than 60 elderly residents herself.
“If they don’t hear me, they’re scared to open the door,” said Witherspoon. “Because, like I said, it’s a pandemic, and they’re older, so they’re afraid. So they just listen and if they don’t hear my voice, then they’re not eating. If they don’t open the door, they don’t get a meal that day.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged that no New Yorker will go hungry, and the city has set up a food delivery program for city residents who can’t access more than three days worth of meals at a time, but Witherspoon said that the meal boxes were just snacks.
After a spot on NBC New York, the food boxes now include items like cooked Brussel sprouts and roast chicken, but one still isn’t enough to provide anywhere close to three days worth of food for a family larger than one. (The program website says one household can order up to two boxes, or 18 meals, at a time.) A coalition of real estate firms is also donating meals to food insecure residents to help out where the city is falling short.
“Our government at every level must do more in order to provide relief for public housing residents,” State Senator Julia Salazar, whose district includes 303 Vernon, said in a statement to Gothamist. “What’s happening in NYCHA’s 303 Vernon development right now demonstrates the harm that results from the longterm failure to invest in public housing: All of the tenants in 303 Vernon have been without cooking gas for months during a pandemic.”
Senator Salazar said her office would continue working with groups like World Central Kitchen, but that the efforts aren’t “sustainable” in the long run.
“Instead of spending public funds on corporate bailouts, we need to invest public funds in restoring our public housing and providing relief to these families who are bearing the brunt of this pandemic,” Salazar said.
Rochel Leah Goldblatt, the deputy press secretary for NYCHA, insisted that the authority keeps its residents updated on when service will be restored.
“Gas service interruptions and repairs are a matter of public safety,” Goldblatt wrote in an email. “The restoration process involves multiple partners and steps, including shutting off the gas service, making necessary repairs and inspections by the Department of Buildings.”
Residents of other NYCHA buildings have gone without cooking gas even longer. Shawn Charles Hudson, 28, lives in the Sack Wern Houses in the Bronx with his 60-year-old mom, and says they have been without gas since July.
Hudson said they used to be able to go to his aunt’s house nearby for meals, or to use her stove to prepare foods that can be heated up in a microwave, but they can’t do that as much now out of fear that they could spread or catch the coronavirus.
Hudson said that prior to the pandemic, NYCHA told residents during weekly in-person meetings that the gas should be restored this summer, but now that those meetings are postponed he’s not sure of the timeline.
As is the case at 303 Vernon, Hudson said that grassroots organizers and mutual aid groups have been helping to provide meals, food, and supplies to elderly and disabled neighbors, but that he and his mom haven’t seen any direct food assistance since Thanksgiving.
“It’s almost like every man, woman, and child for themselves,” Hudson said by phone. “Survival of the fittest. This is like the Hunger Games, except in real life.”