Outside the east entrance of the John Adams Houses, tan leaves nearly conceal a dusty plastic box roughly the size of a toaster oven. It’s a rat trap and a sign on the building indicates poisonous bait was last set out on Feb. 5. The pellets are still there, over a month later, possibly passed up for the pile of Cheetos that sits on the sidewalk a few feet from them; or possibly the packet of sweet and sour sauce that rests on one side of a fence, an oily pizza box on the other.
Five New York City Department of Health & Mental Hygiene inspections found active rat signs in the Adams Houses last year; one-third of the housing’s total number of failed inspections since 2010. Rats are among public housing residents’ top complaints throughout Bronx 1 and residents have nearly identical thoughts on what’s to blame — that the lack of dumpsters means trash bags sit on the sidewalk awaiting collection, creating an easy target for rats; that rat sightings are worse at night, and that daytime collection might mitigate the problem. Residents are also quick to point a finger at each other.
Kecia Ruiz has been living in the St. Mary’s Houses in Melrose for 15 years. She’s one of many public housing residents who say they’ve seen people throw food scraps out apartment windows. “I’ve even seen people throw whole bags of trash out their windows,” says Ruiz.
Andy Ibarra, 72, has lived in public housing for 30 years and used to work as a New York City Housing Authority caretaker. He says the litter problem in in NYCHA wasn’t as bad in the past as it is now. “People used to move in here and they’d work,” says Ibarra. He recalls the different maintenance jobs, such as picking up litter around the grounds, each resident was expected to do as part of living in the community. That was in the 80s. Now, he says, NYCHA isn’t enforcing these roles and people don’t hold themselves accountable without pressure from the Housing Authority.
Danny Barber, Tenant Association president of the Andrew Jackson Houses says attempts to get residents to use existing trash and recycling receptacles aren’t working. He attributes the influx of people moving into public housing from homeless shelters. As the city struggles with managing New York City’s homeless population, families living in shelters take priority on NYCHA waiting lists, which creates a rift between the formerly homeless and those who have lived in public housing for most of their lives.
“This is no longer a shelter situation where a social worker is checking on our space to make sure it’s clean,” says Barber, who takes it upon himself to hold the people on his floor accountable for bags of trash that sit in the hallway. He appreciates the education efforts put forth by organizations such as GrowNYC — which distributes blue recycling bags to New Yorkers and teaches people about the city’s recycling system — but says initiatives will need to be repeated consistently to be effective.