LEGAL CHALLENGE: New York City Housing Authority Tenants Denied Recycling Services

Unequal Access to Legally Required Programs Sends More than One Thousand Tons of Recyclables to Landfills Every Week

NEW YORK (May 20, 2015) – The New York City Housing Authority is required by law to provide its 400,000 tenants with recycling services, but for years it has failed to do so, according to a letter sent to the agency by the Natural Resources Defense Council on behalf of three non-profit environmental justice groups and impacted residents. This has resulted in hundreds of thousands of lower-income New Yorkers being denied essential sanitation services and more than one thousand tons of recyclables being sent to landfills every week.

“Public housing residents deserve the same access to decent sanitation and recycling services as everyone else in this city,” said Eric A. Goldstein, Director of New York City’s Environment at NRDC. “When the city’s single biggest landlord doesn’t recycle, the environmental consequences and quality-of-life impacts are significant. Improving NYCHA’s recycling programs would mean cleaner buildings for public housing residents, and fewer costly shipments of trash to out-of-state landfills for the city.”      

New York City’s landmark Recycling Law of 1989 requires all landlords of buildings with more than four units to provide recycling services. Yet, for 25 years NYCHA—by far the city’s single biggest landlord—has denied its residents the same access to basic recycling services enjoyed by other residential buildings across the city. As a result, while many neighborhoods are recycling nearly a third of their trash, NYCHA buildings are recycling virtually none.

NRDC sent the letter to NYCHA Chair Shola Olatoye on behalf of the Morningside Heights/West Harlem Sanitation Coalition, Mothers on the Move and We Act for Environmental Justice. This is the necessary first step in litigation against NYCHA for its failure to comply with city’s recycling law. The letter calls upon the Housing Authority to respond to the organizations within 60 days, and to bring itself into compliance with the law, so that every NYCHA resident has access to regular and convenient recycling and sanitation services.

Impacted Residents

These three environmental justice organizations have been seeking NYCHA’s cooperation to advance recycling in their NYCHA developments for years. Comments from members of these groups, who are also residents of NYCHA buildings, follow:

  • Brigitte Vicenty, a resident of the Mott Haven Houses in the South Bronx and a member of Mothers on the Move, reports that NYCHA turned away her efforts to establish a resident-based, youth employment recycling collection system in her development. She said: “Residents of NYCHA are citizens and taxpayers of New York City who have been denied their right to recycle. For years, I have tried to work with NYCHA to create new ways to improve recycling in our community. Unfortunately, our concerns have gone unanswered and we as NYCHA residents continue to be discounted and dismissed.”
  • Michele Holmes, a resident of Polo Ground Towers in East Harlem and member of We Act for Environmental Justice, said: “We have never had a real recycling program here. Even basic sanitation services at the Polo Grounds Towers have been substandard, with garbage piling up, attracting rodents and raccoons.”
  • Sarah Martin and Joan Levine, members of the Morningside Heights/West Harlem Sanitation Coalition, started their own recycling program at Manhattan’s Grant Houses but observed NYCHA staff regularly mixing collected recyclables with trash. Martin said: “After an extensive educational program run by residents of Grant Houses, with the help of neighbors, the Morningside Heights/West Harlem Sanitation Coalition proved that recycling can work in NYCHA developments. But NYCHA did not work with us to maintain the program.” Levine added: “As a result, recycling in Grant Houses has suffered.”

NYCHA’s Recycling Shortcomings

Most NYCHA buildings do not have adequate bins for tenants to conveniently dispose of their recyclables. Those bins that have been provided have generally been too small and/or have been inconveniently located outside of buildings. Meanwhile, signage and recycling educational materials required by law are nonexistent in many developments.

Residents report that even where they have access to recycling, NYCHA personnel regularly co-mingle recyclables with non-recyclable household trash. And in those buildings where tenants have attempted to advance recycling operations, NYCHA has generally failed to engage with and support the efforts of tenants looking to improve recycling services in their communities.

Reversing this lack of compliance with the city’s recycling law would lead to improved sanitation conditions at NYCHA buildings, and could even mean extra income those who for residents who participate in the collection process. On top of that, it will help reduce climate-changing methane pollution generated by landfills, as well as reduce the air, water and climate pollution used to create new products from virgin materials.

NYCHA’s Latest Efforts Fall Short

NYCHA recently announced its intent to add recycling bins outside of its buildings by the end of the year. However, the authority has made similar promises before, this promise is unenforceable, and planning efforts to-date have not sufficiently engaged building tenants concerned about recycling.

These community groups, which have sought to boost recycling in NYCHA buildings for years, want to be involved in the establishment of cost-effective and successful recycling programs. Among other things, they have ideas to help ensure greater participation in these programs by NYCHA residents, as well as to employ residents in recycling collections. 

Without tenant buy-in, and enforcement power, broad participation is unlikely. And, as of today, NYCHA remains in widespread non-compliance. 

“As long as NYCHA fails to engage with its own residents, it will not be able to address these systemic sanitation problems,” said NRDC attorney Jon Krois. “Without enthusiastic buy-in from residents, we are unlikely to see a significant reduction in recyclables being sent to landfills, or improved sanitation services for residents. We understand the multiple challenges facing NYCHA managers and tenants today, but public housing residents can be part of the solution, and must not be excluded.”

Read the full letter to NYCHA here:


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