Tenants who live in New York City public housing have long complained about daily inconveniences from malfunctioning elevators: canceling medical appointments, missing school buses, climbing flights of stairs. But the elevators have also taken a widespread physical toll on people who live in, work in or visit the city’s 340 public housing complexes.
Records reviewed by The New York Times show that about 300 residents, employees and visitors have reported being injured in elevator-related accidents at buildings maintained by the city’s public housing agency since 2001.
Dozens of those people received minor bumps and bruises, if any, and did not bother seeking medical attention. But more than 170 were treated at hospitals, by private physicians or by paramedics and firefighters for injuries to their hands, arms, feet, backs, heads, legs or knees, according to the agency and to the records. The records were released by the agency, the New York City Housing Authority, in response to a Freedom of Information Law request by The Times.
The records, though terse in their description of each accident, provide the first comprehensive picture of elevator accidents in public housing buildings, showing not just the frequency of injuries but also their financial costs.
From 2001 to 2007, the agency paid $3.5 million in settlements and judgments in elevator-related personal injury lawsuits, according to the documents. The agency has an operating budget deficit of $177 million in fiscal year 2009 and has closed underused community centers, eliminated hundreds of jobs and raised rents on its highest-income households to cut costs.
Nearly 200 of the reports involved inner or outer elevator doors, which tenants have complained close too quickly or too forcefully. In June 2008, Catherine Martinez, 25, pushed her 4-year-old daughter out of the way of a fast-moving elevator door in the Bronx. The door slammed into Ms. Martinez’s right hand and wrist, leaving her with a cut on her hand and bruises up her forearm.
“The elevators close so quick, and it could smash little kids and old ladies,” she said.
In one month in 2008, four people at four different complexes were taken to hospitals for elevator-door injuries.
One of those four, Indira Abreu, 23, the home health aide, had stepped into an elevator at the Sedgwick Houses in the Bronx on April 30, on her way to see a patient on the fifth floor. The elevator was an old-fashioned model, with an outer door that swung out and an inner door that slid shut. When another passenger stepped out on the third floor, the outer door stopped short of closing, leaving Ms. Abreu stranded.
Ms. Abreu said she grabbed the edge of the door to pull it closed because it did not have an inside handle. The door slammed into her right hand, catching her middle finger between the door and the frame. The tip of her finger up to the end joint was sliced off.
“I immediately felt pain, and then I saw the blood and I just grabbed onto my hand,” said Ms. Abreu, who broke down in tears recalling the accident. “I held my hand. I still didn’t realize part of my finger was missing.”
The Housing Authority, the city’s biggest landlord, provides low-rent housing subsidized by the federal government to poor and moderate-income families. It is responsible for one of the biggest and busiest elevator fleets in New York City: 3,338 elevators in 2,618 buildings. Its elevators make 3.1 million trips a day and 1.2 billion trips a year.
Ricardo Elías Morales, the Housing Authority’s interim chairman, said the reported accidents and injuries were just a fraction when considering those millions of elevator trips. “Within that context, if you really look at the usage and then look at the trips and injuries, the likelihood of someone getting hurt is one in 34 million trips,” he said.
The agency’s elevators have been criticized by tenants and elected officials after a 5-year-old Brooklyn boy, Jacob Neuman, fell 10 stories to his death while trying to escape a stalled elevator in August. Largely as a result of that accident, and widespread complaints about elevator reliability, the authority pledged last year to spend $107 million to replace about 550 elevators in the next five years.
“We care about our residents,” Mr. Morales said. “We care about our elevator situation and are working at it. Any injury to us is one too many. If anybody gets hurt, it’s a concern for us.”
The records, one-page accident reports and occurrence reports filed by the agency’s elevator managers and building staff, describe elevator accidents from January 2001 to October 2008.
Not all of the people who reported injuries sought medical care. But the agency says that from 2001 to 2008, there were 176 reported elevator-related injuries that required medical attention, that were reported to the city’s Department of Buildings and that required an elevator to be shut down for inspection.