Jobless Find Hope in NYCHA’s Post-Sandy Cleanup

Katia Savchuk for City Limits |

On a rainy Tuesday morning, Isiah Timmons woke early on the ninth floor of Coney Island Houses, less than a block away from the surf that flooded its lower floors a month ago. He grabbed a white protective suit, mask and goggles and walked two minutes to join his crew at Carey Gardens, a neighboring housing development.

Workers clean a radiator in a Coney Island NYCHA development

Workers clean a radiator in a Coney Island development, where first-floor residents lost most of their furniture and belongings to Sandy. Photo by Katia Savchuk.

Looking like an urban astronaut in the wan hallway light, Timmons, 21, spent the day knocking on doors, checking for mold and scrubbing bathrooms. He was happy to help his neighbors, but was even happier to have a paycheck — he’d been out of work for a year.


Timmons is one of hundreds of workers hired by janitorial companies NYCHA has contracted to restore 10 developments damaged in Superstorm Sandy. Like him, many are NYCHA tenants, recruited under a program that requires recipients of funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide job opportunities for low-income residents. A separate NYCHA initiative requires companies with contracts worth more than half a million to spend 15 percent of labor costs on residents.

While many New Yorkers lost income because of the storm, the hard-hit NYCHA buildings already had an unemployment problem: A 2011 report by the Community Service Society* (which owns City Limits) estimated the unemployment in the city’s public housing population in 2010 reached 27 percent—three times what it was in 2008.

Even outside of public housing, the job market in the city is still unfriendly. Brooklyn has the fourth-highest unemployment of any county in the state, according to the most recent data released by the Department of Labor in Albany—its 9.9 percent unemployment level in October was higher than the national (7.5 percent), state (8.3 percent) or city (9.2 percent) rates for that month.

So for these workers, post-disaster cleanup has meant a long-awaited steady paycheck, work experience and a chance for overtime in a tough economy — at least while it lasts.

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