If there’s anyone who shines as a beacon of hope for the perennially wronged residents of the New York City Housing Authority, it’s Tiesha Jones.
She was one of the women recognized by the state senate May 1 who have improved quality of life in their communities. And Jones stands out as a paragon, having worked relentlessly with state Sen. Gustavo Rivera’s office, improving health and safety for residents of Bailey Houses at 2663 Heath Ave., where Jones serves as resident council president.
“The senator and I started working together with a number of issues we had at Bailey Houses,” Jones said. “We were going through the no-heat-and-hot-water issue before it became publicized in the media. He was working very close, reaching out to NYCHA, to see what the issue was, how old our boiler was, and if it could be replaced. Along the way, other issues arose.”
Not the least of which is the long, long time tenants complain they often wait for repairs to get done, Jones said.
If they get done, that is. Requests, Jones said, could go unanswered for years.
“And while you’re waiting those two years, more damages are occurring,” Jones said. “You have family over — just like any other person — for the holidays, and you’re embarrassed of the way that you’re living, especially if they’re not living in public housing. They’re like, ‘How could you live like this?’
“It takes outsiders to actually bring it to your attention, like, ‘Yeah, I shouldn’t be living like this.’”
But fighting for the rights of fellow NYCHA tenants is something Jones has been doing for a while. She started advocating for Fort Independence Houses after her daughter, Dakota Taylor, registered an elevated level of lead poisoning while living there in 2010. After a protracted legal battle, she was awarded $58 million last January by a Bronx jury against NYCHA for its failure to inspect Jones’ apartment for lead paint as required.
“Eventually I will move the family out, but I still have some work that needs to be done,” Jones said. “A lot of people, whether they become famous or win the lotto, the first thing they do after they get their money is they leave their community and they don’t look back. I don’t want to leave my community.”
Lead is particularly harmful to the developing brain and nervous system of young children, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Dakota was placed in special education classes in the city’s public schools, Jones said, because of the lead exposure.
“To have a child, and you bring them home from the hospital, and they’re healthy, and to watch everything that you taught them reversed,” Jones said. “You teach your child how to tie a shoe and for them to forget how to tie a shoe — it was devastating.”
That inspired Jones to work with her senator on a far-reaching mission.
“There are some other children that probably had lead poisoning, and it went undiagnosed, and they have significant damage to their brain and have (individual education plans), and the parents weren’t aware of why, and they need special services,” Jones said.
She teamed up with Rivera to bring awareness to the lead issue in New York. For too long, that awareness was lacking in her community.
“I felt alone at first because whenever I would bring this up to someone, no one had answers,” Jones said. “Even my close friends and family members. We all didn’t understand. And when I did get some awareness of it and tried to spread the word, it was like no one really cared.”
But the settlement changed that.
“No amount of money could replace what happened to my daughter or reverse the effects,” Jones said. “But it gave a sense of hope to other NYCHA residents and brought exposure to problems we live with every day, and to give them a sense that they can fight back.
“It just woke NYCHA up, to let them know, ‘Listen — we have to take better care of our residents, we have to take better care of our property. And if we don’t, these are the consequences.’”
Finally finding retribution taught Jones she’s not powerless — and that she’s no longer alone.
“I was just happy because I could make a change so there won’t be any more Dakotas,” Jones said. “Working together with NYCHA and with the politicians to get our homes free of lead, get the repairs that we need, use better paint.”
And the honor Rivera bestowed on Jones in Albany is a testament to the kind of grassroots effort that has the potential to counteract longstanding injustice.
Jones “sadly and tragically found herself and her family in a situation, and in her case her daughter’s lead poisoning led her to become activated and say, ‘I’m not going to allow this to happen to anybody else,’” Rivera said. “That civic commitment and that involvement in community is something that, whenever I find it, I want to laud it, because I want more people to be just as involved and engaged.”
Now, working with Jones, Rivera is figuring out whether there’s something that can be done at the state level to address situations such as the one she and her daughter endured.
“We’re still developing that piece of legislation, so it’s not live yet,” Rivera said. “But we are working on one.”
“A lot of the legislation that I’ve passed and introduced over the years has been a direct product of that interaction with constituents and community groups all over my district.
“But I also think that the fact that she chose to become the president of the tenants association, the residents (council) — that she led both at Fort Independence and now at Bailey — I’m very glad that there’s somebody that gets involved, because she tries to get more people from the development to become involved in the organization itself.”
And in no small part thanks to Jones’ efforts, there’s hope for people who live in Bailey Houses, Fort Independence, and other Bronx NYCHA developments.
“For a long time we have been like the forgotten and misplaced in society,” Jones said. “We’ve been accustomed to living a certain way in which our human rights were violated.
“You get our rent money every month and keep us living in the same conditions and exploiting our health on a regular basis. They see now that we are caring enough to make sure that these things don’t happen and we’re bringing it to the attention of others.”