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Grandmother Struggles With Cancer and NYCHA Bureaucracy

By Patrick Wall | August 30, 2012 9:19am

SOUNDVIEW — There are many reasons why Maria Ruiz has asked the city’s Housing Authority to transfer her from the east Bronx development where she has lived for the past three decades.

First, there is the location of the apartment on the building’s 14th floor.

After Ruiz, a 67-year-old bus matron, underwent chemotherapy and radiation therapy several years ago to treat her breast cancer, she became too weak to climb the stairs. But when she took the building's elevator, several times it broke down with her inside. Soon, the thought of stepping inside it made her panic.

Then, there is the lack of heat.

Documents show that Ruiz has complained about inadequate heat in her apartment since at least 1985. There have been times, in the dead of winter, when her breath was visible in her room, she said.

And, finally, there is her granddaughter.

Madison Alequin, now 4, was born three months early — she weighed just more than 1 pound. She now suffers from a host of medical issues and requires around-the-clock breathing machines.

In 2009, a social worker from The Children's Hospital at Montefiore wrote a letter underscoring the urgency of Madison’s respiratory problems.

“It is imperative to Madison’s health and survival that she not spend any time in conditions that are substandard relative to proper heating,” the hospital staffer wrote.

So Ruiz submitted transfer requests to the city’s Housing Authority in 2007 and 2008.

Both requests were denied.

Since then, Ruiz and her daughter, Sofia Alequin, 43, have made hundreds of phone calls to NYCHA and the city. Through Madison’s hospital, they retained a private lawyer to file an additional transfer request with the agency.

And, in 2009, they lodged a discrimination complaint against NYCHA, which the state’s Division of Human Rights filed in Bronx Supreme Court this month. The lawsuit alleges that NYCHA violated the state’s human rights law.

NYCHA declined to comment on any aspect of the case while the lawsuit is pending.

Now, after years of pleading for help, and still stuck in her same apartment, Ruiz holds out little hope for in a change of fortune, despite this latest development.

“A long time, nobody come, nobody come,” Ruiz, who was born in Puerto Rico, said recently as tears gathered in her eyes.

“I’m crying,” she explained, “because I’m angry.”

Ruiz moved into the Monroe Houses in 1980 with her two children, whom she raised alone. During the week, she worked in schools, daycares and, as she still does today, on a bus for special-needs students. On the weekends, she loved nothing more than to salsa dance.

After Ruiz was diagnosed with cancer in 2006, Alequin quit her job as a dental assistant to help care for her mother. The following year, Madison was born.

Madison's poor health meant the apartment’s spotty heating was not just miserable, but dangerous.

So her mother layered Madison in long underwear, hooded pajamas, wool socks and a thick blanket at night. She sometimes left the oven open to warm the apartment. But still Madison was cold.

When the child developed pneumonia one winter, Alequin was convinced the sporadic heating was to blame.

“It’s beyond belief,” said Alequin. “My daughter’s life is at stake, and you” — NYCHA — “don’t care.”

When Madison's hospital referred Alequin to a private law firm, she asked a lawyer there to prepare another transfer request for the family. By 2010, NYCHA had approved this request and addressed the apartment’s heating issues, according to a letter from Alequin's lawyer, Andrew Bonnes of Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP, who did not return multiple phone calls for comment.

But after confusion over whether an apartment was actually available in the development where her family was to be transferred, Alequin asked for a different placement, she said. She has not heard from NYCHA since.

The civil lawsuit filed this month on behalf of Ruiz says that NYCHA’s computerized method of assigning tenants apartments based on need, while meant to be impartial, actually violates anti-discrimination laws because it does not allow for an “individualized interactive process.”

In Ruiz’s case, the agency denied her requests for “reasonable accommodation,” stranding her in an apartment “that is unhealthy for her and does not accommodate her disabilities,” the complaint said. The Human Rights Division declined to comment on the case while it is pending.

It is unclear whether either of Ruiz’s transfer requests ever made it past the development’s former manager, Elizabeth Gadson, who denied at least one of the requests. Monroe staff said Gadson has since retired.

A current assistant manager at Monroe, Anil Andrews, said that according to the rules at the time of the request, if a tenant asked for a lower floor in a building with an elevator, the request could be denied. Now, the rules appear to allow for a lower-floor transfer even if a tenant’s current building has an elevator.

NYCHA housing managers often make “unilateral decisions” to deny transfers, said Kathryn Neilson, a staff attorney in the Legal Services NYC Housing Unit. Even qualified tenants find it hard to win approval, Neilson added.

“A lot of our NYCHA clients have experienced difficulties in getting transferred,” she said. “If it’s not an emergency, it can take forever.”