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As the coronavirus pandemic spreads through Kentucky, we bring you the latest on death rates, risks of reopening and how it was affecting the commonwealth's most vulnerable.

In Public Housing, Few Masks and 'Petri Dish' Common Areas

Michelle Hanks/KyCIR
Dosker Manor on an overcast summer evening. The apartments are across the street from the University of Louisville Hospital.

As the weather warms, Juan Garcia wants to get outside and ride his bicycle in the sun. But instead, he spends most of his time inside his apartment on the sixth floor of the Dosker Manor public housing complex.

Garcia, 73, said venturing out of his apartment is too risky. He has no mask or gloves to protect himself from the coronavirus in the common areas of the housing complex, where the halls are dingy and elevators are often packed with other residents. He says it can feel like a petri dish.

“I stay in my apartment,” he said. “It’s safer.”

But there, Garcia battles constantly with roaches, bedbugs, and the pigeons that roost on his balcony. His air conditioner often peters out after a few minutes.

For Garcia, the COVID-19 pandemic lays bare a quandary that comes with living in public housing: staying home and avoiding the risk of infection, as government officials urge, means dealing with a crowded, antiquated high rise plagued with maintenance issues and infestations. 

About a quarter of the city’s 4,000 public housing residents live in high-rise style complexes. About 640 people live in Dosker Manor, a three-building complex that sits just east of downtown Louisville on Muhammad Ali Boulevard. Nearly all residents at Dosker Manor are elderly or disabled, putting them at higher risk of complications if they contract the sometimes deadly COVID-19 disease.

Some residents at Dosker Manor said they’d heard someone at the complex tested positive, but many chalked it up to a rumor. The city’s housing authority refused to confirm if any residents living in public housing have tested positive for the disease. 

“Out of respect for… our residents’ privacy we do not make it a habit to ask about their personal medical circumstances,” said Courtney Lewis, a spokesperson for the Louisville Metro Housing Authority.

Lewis said tenants are not obligated to share medical information. A spokesperson for the city’s health department did not respond to an emailed question about whether the agency would alert the housing authority if a resident tested positive.

Across the country, public housing complexes are uniquely vulnerable for an outbreak of infectious disease, said Susan J. Popkin, a fellow at the Urban Institute, an economic and social policy research nonprofit based in Washington D.C. Residents of public housing are often elderly, and they share common spaces like hallways, elevators and laundry rooms. 

For the agencies, the pandemic has only added pressure on a system that’s strained by deferred maintenance, dated buildings and decades of disinvestment, Popkin said. 

Popkin added that the pivot to remote work also left many public housing agencies scrambling to equip employees with the tools needed to stay connected and, more simply, to keep their employees safe and healthy during the pandemic.

“They’re really trying,” she said. “It’s just tough.”

Lisa Osanka, the executive director of the Louisville Metro Housing Authority, was not available for an interview for this story, Lewis said.

To date, $3.7 million has been made available to the Louisville Metro Housing Authority to spend on COVID-19 related expenses through the federal CARES Act, which Lewis said will be used “to keep our residents healthy at home and our staff healthy,” but she provided no specific details about how the funds will be spent.

Popkin of the Urban Institute said agencies should use the newly awarded federal funds to purchase protective equipment and cleaning supplies for staff and residents, and buy equipment that can help agencies maintain operations while working remotely. The funds can also help offset drops in rent revenue that results from the downturned economy during the pandemic, she said.

“Anything they can do to get services for residents,” Popkin said. “And food, that’s really important right now.”

The agency spokesperson said the housing authority partners with local nonprofits to help get food to residents.

Garcia knows many residents at the complex that struggle to afford wholesome food. He’s even known some to resort to eating cat food.

“It’s horrible,” he said.

Garcia came to Louisville in 1971 for a job doing iron work at McAlpine Locks and Dam. The pay was better than in Texas, and he liked the river that snaked by the city, so he stayed. His three sons have moved away, but he takes care of himself. He hops a bus for errands, and he knows a guy with an extra mask.

“I think he’s going to give it to me, for $5,” Garcia said. “I can dish out $5 for a mask.”

When Garcia does venture out of his apartment for a trip to the doctor or store, he notices the flyers and signs posted near elevators and mailboxes informing residents about the virus and offering tips on how to stay safe.

But not all residents seem to heed the warnings, he said.

“Everyone knows what time the mail comes and they all go check it at the same time,” he said. “They’re down there bumping right into each other.”

And not everyone wears a mask, he said. But he doesn’t fault residents for that.

“A lot of people here don’t have money for face masks or gloves,” he said.

He thinks the housing authority should provide personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies to residents.

Lewis, the spokesperson, said the agency is working to do that, but “like most agencies sourcing these items in the quantity needed is taking some time.”

The agency is also working “seven days a week” to clean and sanitize stairwells, elevators, lobbies and laundry rooms, she said. Each weekday two staffers are tasked with cleaning buildings “from top to bottom.” Maintenance crews are responding to emergency calls only, which frees up time to “ensure a safe and sanitized environment for all residents and staff.”

Public housing complexes are often plagued with maintenance issues, as detailed in complaints from residents. Dosker Manor usually tops the list for issues.

In 2019, residents at Dosker Manor submitted more than 4,100 work orders for repairs ranging from leaky faucets, busted pipes, loose doorknobs, broken elevators and bugs or mice.

Now, many complaints will likely go unanswered; due to the pandemic, maintenance crews are only responding to emergency calls.

Mary Surrell, a Dosker Manor resident, said trash seems to be piling up in dumpsters and hallways as the pandemic rages on. She said the entire building just feels dirty, and that’s enough to make her worried about being infected with the COVID-19 virus. She’s scared to ride the elevator, she tries not to touch anything.

“I don’t feel safe in here,” she said.

And, she’s lonely. 

The housing authority has restricted visitation to medical providers, delivery services and people helping new residents move in, according to documents provided by the housing authority. For Surrell, this means no visits from her daughter and grandchildren, something she looks forward to.

“This virus has shut everything down,” she said. “I just stay in my apartment.”

Chesney Pleasants does, too. But she’s not too worried about the virus. In fact, she’s long expected a pandemic — people are too dirty and careless and crowded together, she said.

The crowded elevators don’t bother her. Pleasants said if she sees a crowd, she’ll wait, or take the stairs. She commends the housing authority for doing what they can to abate the virus, but she doesn’t expect much. 

“Let’s be practical,” she said. “This is a disaster …. I think they are doing as much as they can.”

Pleasants said people just need to wash their hands, wear their masks, and stay inside.

“Use your brain,” she said. 

Juan Garcia plans to.

“I made it to 73, and I’m no fool,” Garcia said. 

He plans to continue his precautions even after a semblance of normalcy resumes —  he says he’ll keeping wearing his mask, and looking for some gloves, too.

What he misses most, though, is church. He attends a Catholic church a few blocks away, and was sad to see it close. He went once to a drive-in service, but he doesn’t have a car. It was cold outside, and he didn’t like standing alone.

So, he stays in his apartment and on Sunday, he turns on the radio and listens to the service.

Jacob Ryan joined LPM in 2014. Ryan is originally from Eddyville, Kentucky. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.