Jacob Neuman is the 5-year-old boy who died yesterday in a tragic fall down an elevator shaft at Taylor-Wythe Houses in Williamsburg.
What makes this tragedy more galling is the fact that it is not all that surprising. The New York City Housing Authority, which runs the City’s public housing projects, has a horrible track record when it comes to elevator safety. In this case, the two elevators at Taylor-Wythe had a history of stalling between floors going back at least six months. Further, the elevators at Taylor-Wythe had been labeled “unsatisfactory” in 17 of 21 inspections between 2004 and 2007. And despite a requirement that elevators be inspected every six months, NYCHA has no records of an elevator inspection at Taylor-Wythe since October, 2007.
And its not just this housing complex. Citywide, NYCHA experienced over 25,000 elevator breakdowns in the first six months of this year (and that’s down 5% from last year). Over 49% of housing authority residents rate their elevator service as poor or bad. The history of breakdowns and fatalities directly or indirectly tied to them is depressing. Last year, Lillian Milán, who suffered from asthma, died when she was forced by a broken elevator to walk up 10 flights of stairs to her apartment at Bushwick Houses. Despite calls to action after that tragedy, little has changed.
NYCHA is pointing the finger at the Federal government, for cutbacks that prevented NYCHA from undertaking upgrades to the elevators at Taylor-Wythe back in 2004. But that is just passing the buck. NYCHA knew it had problems with elevators system wide, and knew that these elevators needed replacing. Rehabilitating these elevators was a life-safety issue, and the responsibility for performing the upgrade rests solely with NYCHA. (Others are pointing the finger at DOB, but this is one case where criticism of DOB is misplaced – the Department does not even have jurisdiction over NYCHA properties.)
Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes has already announced an investigation, and surely there is plenty of blame to be passed around. But the buck has to stop somewhere, and it stops with NYCHA. They knew they had an elevator problem – here specifically and in general system-wide. It is their responsibility to keep their properties safe, wherever the money comes from.