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Columbia Spectator Staff

Plaster is peeling off the walls and mold is spreading throughout Marilyn Spruill's apartment in the Frederick Douglass Houses. Her management, run by the city, says it will work on repairs—but not until 2012. The problem Spruill faces is just a glimpse of the kind of struggle that residents of the Frederick Douglass Houses raised at a Community Board 7 housing committee meeting Monday night. "They said I can't get a ticket until 2012, [because] they don't have a contract with a plasterer," Spruill said, referring to the process of getting an appointment for repairs. Douglass Houses, a 19-building housing project centered around 100th Street and Columbus Avenue, is facing issues that have dogged public housing in New York City for years – broken elevators, rat infestations, vandalism, and bedbugs. But maintenance problems seemed to be the most widespread and most urgent. One resident spoke about waiting three weeks for someone to fix a stopped-up sink. Another woman spoke about her refrigerator not closing, leaving her unable to refrigerate the insulin she needed to treat her diabetes. Fridge problems seemed endemic—one woman said she had resorted to buying a fridge and keeping it in her bedroom after multiple unsuccessful repairs. "I pay my rent," tenant association president Jane Wisdom said. Still, "sometimes it takes a year or two before they can come to your house to paint and plaster, with an appointment at that." Even in extreme cases, Wisdom said that timely repairs have been hard to come by. She cited a recent, seemingly random incident of violence when a female tenant had her door lit on fire—which has also not yet been repaired. To deter crime, some buildings have had cameras installed, but Wisdom said it hasn't been enough. "There are no cameras on one side of Columbus, so the people who do crime have just moved," she said, appealing to the board members to find a way to pressure the New York City Housing Authority, the agency that oversees public housing, to install more. The committee meeting, held in a dim basement of one of the buildings that serves as the tenants association room, attracted a handful of tenants and local housing activists. A representative from Congressman Charlie Rangel's office also attended on the eve of Tuesday's primary election. The manager and superintendent of Douglass Houses were scheduled to attend to give a tour of the buildings and answer questions, but neither showed up. Housing committee co-chair Victor Gonzalez said that after notifying them that reporters would be attending, management said that there was a problem, but wouldn't explain. "As far as I know, they should have been here," Gonzalez said. No one answered the phone at the Douglass Houses management office Monday evening. Committee members said they hope to call a joint meeting with community board members, elected officials, representatives from the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and Department of Sanitation, and NYCHA management to address the complaints. "We have terrible landlords who don't comply, but we have a weapon," said local Democratic district leader Cynthia Doty, referring to how residents of private housing can stop paying rent in the event of outstanding repairs or substandard living conditions. "People should be able to have their apartments maintained."