Possums, raccoons and rats overrun Brooklyn public housing
Raccoons and possums and rats — oh my!
Critters and critics abound at a Brooklyn public housing complex where a stalled climate resiliency project now provides long-term housing for all kinds of unwanted pests, with some arriving on four legs and still others on six.
“I got a dead possum outside and I’m gonna have to call it in because it’s stinking,” griped Karen Blondel, president of the Red Hook West Tenant Association and its 6,000 residents.
The invasion of raccoons, possums, rats and roaches began after the New York City Housing Authority launched its $550 million overhaul of the Red Hook houses infrastructure in 2017, residents said. The work is part of the agency’s $3.2 billion Recovery and Resilience Program, prompted by the ravages of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
“They’re building and digging tunnels, and [rodents] are able to travel underground,” said Alberto Calderon, a New York licensed commercial nuisance wildlife control operator. “So, what they’re doing is giving them ways of entry.”
Sandy hit the Red Hook waterfront public housing development hard, leaving the complex without power and utilities for weeks and in some cases months.
The subsequent environmental overhaul, initially scheduled for completion in mid-2021, remains only 60% done while morphing into an urban wildlife preserve with a 40-acre network of underground tunnels filled with creeping creatures and a plethora of above-ground invaders, residents said.
The plan was to upgrade and harden the complex’s water, heating and piping systems against the effects of climate change. The reality is something totally different.
“We’ve seen an increase of vermin like rats, skunks, and possums, which is something we’ve never seen in the neighborhood before,” said Tavina Willis, a 16-year resident of Red Hook’s West Towers and a community organizing manager at non-profit Red Hook Initiative.
Calderon said that under New York law, only a licensed wildlife operator can remove wildlife like raccoons and possums. And while NYCHA has extermination staff operating in Red Hook Houses, they don’t treat areas that are under construction, according to the agency.
The project’s contractor also uses a private pest control company that specializes mainly in small vermin like rats, roaches, and bed bugs, according to its website. But fed-up residents charge the current efforts are insufficient.
Pamela Casey, a 61-year-old Red Hook crossing guard, said she has noticed an influx of raccoons along with “rats the size of cats.”
“We never had that before,” said Casey, an eight-year resident in the West Towers.
Fellow resident Anthony Hernandez, 62, said the infestation is the worst ever during his 20 years in the complex.
“There’s a rat issue. There’s mice issues. There’s roaches like crazy everywhere,” he said, noting an encounter with a rat on the fourth floor.
“They must have climbed the walls or something,” he said.
The NYCHA East and West complexes are comprised of 32 buildings, most filled with low- and moderate-income tenants, many of them people of color, said long-time resident Blondel.
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The bulk of the underground construction work began in summer 2020 and is now projected to last until the first quarter of 2024, she said.
“There was a phase [in the construction] where we had mountains of garbage out here and I had to call a special meeting,” said Blondel.
According to NYCHA, the climate resiliency project in Red Hook touches practically every structure and almost every area of the housing complex.
It includes a new heat and hot water system requiring 20,000 feet of distribution piping and will raise critical mechanical, electrical and plumbing infrastructures above flood risk levels. The agency is also installing over 34 miles of electrical conduit to power equipment across the development.
A NYCHA spokesperson said the restoration plan included repairing the complex’s torn-up landscape, as well as new playgrounds, basketball courts, an adult exercise area, and seating areas when the project is done.
But Calderon said removing the four-legged furry interlopers will remain a daunting challenge once the animals claim a place as their own.
“Those [raccoons] are here to stay,” he said. “But we can make the number manageable.”