What's The 311? Stranded In New York's Service Hotline Deserts

April 29, 2019

 

This story was originally published on April 24, 2019 in THE CITY by Rachel Holliday Smith

 

 

 

Residents of Battery Park City and city public housing complexes have different problems.

Along the Hudson in Lower Manhattan, illegal parking and boat noise are frequent gripes. In NYCHA buildings, complaints about vermin, mold, the lack of heat — or worse – abound.

 

But the New Yorkers are united by a common challenge: If they want to report those issues to 311, the citywide service hotline, it won’t help much.

 

That’s because parts of New York operated by city- and state-run authorities are not fully integrated into the 311 system, 16 years after the call center answered its first complaints.

 

“It seems nonsensical,” said Tammy Meltzer, a 22-year resident of the Battery Park City. 

 

The issue crops up in areas run by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), Battery Park City Authority (BPCA) and on Roosevelt Island, which is managed by the state-run Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation. Also in the 311 desert: some state and federal parks.

 

 

Councilmember Ben Kallos at a 2017 Town Hall meeting updates Islanders about the status of the Island's 911 system. The year prior there was a casualty due to emergency responders not arriving in time due to confusion about where Roosevelt Island is actually located. It was not the first casualty caused by this.

 

In those neighborhoods, home to a combined 425,000 or so people, 311 will take your call. The system accepts requests by phone, social media and on its app from anywhere in the five boroughs, even if a non-city agency is ultimately responsible for the problem, according to 311’s Executive Director Joseph Morrisroe.

 

But from there, the issue is referred outside 311’s purview – making following progress difficult.

 

 

 

 

A Longtime Problem

 

The problem has irked Battery Park City residents for years, leading to the area’s community board to unanimously pass a resolution earlier this year asking city and state elected officials to get everyone on the same line.

 

“It’s a murky situation and it shouldn’t be,” said Meltzer, chair of the BPC Committee of Manhattan’s Community Board 1. “You see a street lamp out, you do what everybody else in New York City does, right? You report it to 311 … and it should be trackable.”

 

If someone in Battery Park City wants to report a broken bench within a park, for example, the caller would report it to 311, then the operator (or app) would refer the problem to the BPCA — and that’s where it ends, or is “closed.”

 

But that doesn’t necessarily mean anything got resolved, and the caller can no longer keep tabs on progress.

 

Meltzer says the issue is common in Battery Park’s north end where many of the streets are not maintained by the city’s Department of Transportation, she said.

 

Nicholas Sbordone, a BPCA spokesman, said the 311 issue also comes up in the neighborhood’s 36 acres of public parks, which the authority manages and maintains. He said BPCA works hard with residents, 311 and CB1 to “ensure all issues are directed to the right place and address in a timely manner.”

 

Ideally, Meltzer said, follow-up with BPCA by locals wouldn’t be necessary.

 

“Why is it the consumer who has that burden?” she said.

 

‘Far-Reaching Consequences’

 

State Senator Leroy Comrie (D-Queens) sees the same problem crop up repeatedly with constituents living in NYCHA complexes. If there’s an issue that needs fixing, tenants have to call NYCHA’s in-house maintenance line, not 311.

 

That system “doesn’t work at all,” Comrie, who chairs the Senate’s Corporations, Authorities and Commissions Committee, told THE CITY.

 

“Nine times out of ten, they call in a complaint and they have no idea if anyone’s acknowledged it. If they wait for a reply, it oftentimes never comes and they have to redo the original complaint,” he said.

 

Comrie has sponsored state legislation that would force NYCHA to become fully integrated within 311. The bill, first introduced by then-senator Jeff Klein last year, is pending in committee.

 

If the bill becomes law, existing problems within NYCHA property could at least be tracked with data, Comrie said.

 

Councilmember Ritchie Torres (D-Bronx) says that’s essential. He tried last fall to introduce legislation to integrate NYCHA into 311, but because of intra-Council rules, the effort hasn’t gone anywhere.

 

“Without 311, there’s no bridge to building code enforcement, health code enforcement, housing code enforcement, and all the rest,” Torres told THE CITY. “Disconnecting NYCHA tenants from 311 has far-reaching consequences, more so than people realize.”

 

On Roosevelt Island, residents know to report issues directly to the state-run Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, staffers there said. On 311’s service request map, which shows open and closed calls for the most recent five days, only eight requests appeared for the island’s zip code — where about 12,000 people live, according to census data.

 

It’s unclear who – or what – has the authority, or will, to fully integrate these various areas into the 311 system. For NYCHA, Comrie hopes state legislation will force the issue. In Battery Park City, it will take a coordinated effort between different groups including the BPCA, state park agencies and the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DOITT), which runs 311.

 

DOITT said it received more than 1,400 service requests in Battery Park City last year. But those cases, “out of New York City jurisdiction,” are referred to the Battery Park City Authority, an agency spokesperson said.

 

“There’s always going to be things that aren’t exactly perfect anywhere you live in New York City. But this seems like an easy fix,” Meltzer said.

 

“It’s not rocket science. It’s just logistics.”

 

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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