Ruben Diaz Jr.

Rubén Díaz Jr. on New York’s responsibility to Puerto Rico

Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr. discusses New York’s responsibility to Puerto Rico.

As the first mainland home to so many Puerto Ricans – including Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.’s father, who moved to the borough from Bayamón – the Bronx has long had close ties to the island devastated by Hurricane Maria in Sept. 2017. Since then, Diaz has been a leading voice in New York’s response. Here’s the BP’s take on the governor and mayor’s response, his responsibility as a Puerto Rican and teaming up with Fat Joe.

C&S: You released a report 100 days after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico giving recommendations for New York, including forming an oversight panel to coordinate the state’s efforts. Have you seen any response to the report?

RDJ: We put out that report, and a couple of weeks later, I was able to have a conversation with (Puerto Rico) Gov. (Ricardo) Rossello when he visited the Bronx and he was here with Gov. (Andrew) Cuomo. I spoke to his staff and his administration and him as well, and they’re looking over it … I believe that we should still have some type of committee to hold our federal government responsible. Because of the inadequate level of response and commitment and resources and financials that Puerto Rico is feeling. It’s unfortunate and it’s sad and it’s heartbreaking. We have family members over there who are still hurting, and there’s still 30 percent of the island without electricity. There’s still so many folks who are coming over here (to the mainland) because they’ve lost jobs and we’re not feeling any level of commitment. We’re not hearing it from President (Donald) Trump or from Congress. That was the plea that Gov. Rossello made when he was here in the South Bronx to all of us. Whether we do it through committee or at the ballot box, basically he said that the Puerto Rican diaspora and all of our brethren and our community have to come together and be the voice for the 3.5 million Americans who are voiceless, being neglected at this point on the island.

C&S: You say the federal government isn’t doing enough, but the report is largely about what the city and the state should do. Have you seen enough response from Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio here?

RDJ: Between the governor and the mayor, we have two forceful and great responses. There’s no doubt that when you look at the men and women who have been sent down there from the utilities, from Con Edison, from the National Guard, from different agencies, both city and state – we’re happy with that. But the governor and the mayor and their agencies can’t do it alone. So have I seen adequate responses from the mayor and the governor? Yes. From the state and the city? Yes. Could there be more? Absolutely. Is it going to take others outside of state and city government? Absolutely.

C&S: You represent the Bronx, but you’re also one of the most prominent ethnically Puerto Rican politicians in New York. Did you release this report as the Bronx BP, or do you feel like you have a larger responsibility to represent the Puerto Rican diaspora in New York?

RDJ: I think we have a responsibility as human beings first. People are dying out there. People are sick, and they’re not getting the adequate medicine that they need. Hospitals have been shut down. There are folks whose health conditions have been exacerbated. Not necessarily by the hurricane itself, but by the conditions subsequent to the hurricane. And that continues to be the case. Families are split up, people are leaving the island. People have been leaving their home in the mountainous regions of the island. Folks are unable to work because entire industries have been shut down. In parts of Puerto Rico… the police officers are not on the streets, they’re not patrolling, and crime has gone up in many areas. There’s a health crisis happening, a humanitarian crisis. So as human beings, we have a responsibility. As Americans, how could we allow for this to happen to fellow Americans? We have a responsibility there.

And in terms of being the Bronx Borough President and Puerto Rican, we have hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans here who all have family members over there suffering. And tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans who are coming over here from the island! So as a Borough President, this is becoming a constituency issue, and as a Puerto Rican, it’s personal. This checks so many different boxes on so many different levels. But the most important is that we are seeing fellow human beings and fellow Americans totally neglected. And that should not be the case.

C&S: One of your suggestions was starting up volunteer tourism – has that happened yet? Are there New Yorkers going down and spending money and helping rebuild?

RDJ: People are going down there. And spending their own money, they’re volunteering. They’re going over there to visit family members, and at the same time they’re going over there and doing the best they can where they’re needed. We have so many different organizations and community groups and not-for-profits that are over there that have been coordinating. Not necessarily because of my report, but I think those lines of communication were already happening, and now you’re getting more and more people being connected to each other. And because of the report, there’s been more conversations between institutions like the Hispanic Federation and UNICEF and many other groups. The Urban Health Plan here in the Bronx. You have doctors and nurses who we met with recently. Everyone is going back and forth, and they’re doing it on a volunteer basis.

C&S: Have you been down to Puerto Rico? When was your last time?

RDJ: I went down there about three weeks after the hurricane to deliver 217,000 pounds of resources and medicine and water and clothing that we collected on Southern Boulevard. Initially, we were just going to send four shipping containers. But on Sept. 30, the response was so overwhelming and so incredible that we collected 300,000 pounds. So we snt the four containers initially and then we had to get Jay-Z, Roc Nation, Fat Joe – actually Fat Joe paid for the four containers. But then we had such an overwhelming response that we had to get a 747 jet, and I delivered it with Fat Joe and Romeo Santos, the Bachata King. The three of us went with a delegation and we handed it over to the Puerto Rican government. The plane had 217,000 pounds, but in aggregate, we did over 300,000 pounds that were collected in one day – not even – in half a day. It took us two days to get it off the street, on Southern Boulevard in the South Bronx. One of, if not the proudest day for me as the borough president. And as a New Yorker.

C&S: You gave your State of the Borough address on Feb. 22 and again called on NYCHA to declare a state of emergency to ramp up efforts to fix boilers and remediate lead paint. Is that just a show, or would that actually help things move more quickly?

RDJ: NYCHA is a mess. And that mess starts at the very top. And we could get political about it and we could point fingers, but what we’re assuming is that NYCHA residents, as we heard in the (City Council) hearings, over 320,000 of them have been left out in the cold for at least 48 hours during this winter at some point.

We saw that they were not forthcoming about information about doing adequate inspections for lead testing and removing lead paint, putting children at risk. The developmental stages for our children have been compromised at NYCHA. We’ve already seen a number of different lawsuits. But that said, the question becomes how is it that we move forward in a way that we can expedite the procurement process. The level of frustration is – and I highlighted this in my State of the Borough address – is that you already have NYCHA developments that need boilers. In fact half of the NYCHA developments … need a new boiler today. You already have developments that not only need new boilers, but they’ve been totally financed. And yet, it’s been years to be able to get these boilers. Then they have temporary boilers that freeze because they’re above ground. The oil coagulates and freezes because it’s not insulated.

When we talk about NYCHA, yes, they say they need money, but you can’t just give them a blank check. How do we guarantee that NYCHA residents are going to get that heat and hot water that they need as soon as possible? The only way to guarantee that is to do one of two things. A, do design-build, which we’ve seen works with bridges, and B, declare a state of emergency to expedite and accelerate the procurement process.

We know that these aren’t boilers, as NYCHA said, that you can purchase at Home Depot. So we know that the demolition of the boiler and the construction of the new boiler all takes time. The actual labor. But every stage in between, from A, putting out the RFP, B, selecting a vendor. C, doing the background check on the vendor, registering the vendor with the city or state comptroller. Reviewing the contract. And that’s only the vendor from whom you want to buy the boiler. Then you’ve got to go to the next stage, which is to do the demolition on the current boiler. You’ve got to do that all over again. Then you have to do the design of the boiler. You have to go through all the stages I just said, again. Then you have to go to the installation of the builder. So you see, all these phases have this whole process that we can expedite and we should expedite and accelerate to make it quicker. It’s been done in the past, they did it after Superstorm Sandy and it’s mind-boggling and it’s unacceptable and it’s just frustrating that they won’t go ahead and do it. We had nearly 60 elected officials from every level of government sign a letter imploring them to do so. If NYCHA is not willing to do it, then the governor should … regardless of how much money the mayor is giving or the state is going to give, or by some miracle the federal government is going to give the money that’s needed - and they should do it, for boilers and other essentials, that we get to do it as quickly as possible. The mayor allocated $200 million for boilers a couple weeks ago. That sounds great, and it’s a step in the right direction, but even by their own optimistic timeline, it won’t be until the next administration is in City Hall that the people in NYCHA, who are supposed to be receiving new boilers actually get guaranteed continuous heat in their apartments. That’s unacceptable. You and I slept warm last night. We’ll sleep warm tonight. Imagine if this was a private developer. We would all be out there, including the mayor. Every elected official, if this was a Co-op City, or if this was Stuyvesant Town, we would all be protesting and rallying and finding out different ways to penalize a landlord who was treating New Yorkers in such fashion. Well in this case, it’s NYCHA and we are outraged about the treatment that hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers are receiving from NYCHA.

C&S: Sounds similar to criticism about the federal government’s response to Puerto Rico after the storm.

RDJ: You can’t on one hand say that the federal government is neglecting Americans on the island and then neglect New Yorkers over here. We talk about the fact that we have to have Rikers Island shut down. And many of us believe that very strongly! And we’re doing all the necessary steps to shut down Rikers Island. From Raise the Age to cash bail reform – we’re supportive of that. And we all know that every borough is going to have to pull their weight. But then an announcement came on a new jail without the input of the Bronx from the mayor and City Hall. And the new jail is less than half a mile away from Patterson Houses, who need new boilers and don’t have them. So how do we tell New Yorkers, hey we’re going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a new jail, but we’re not going to give you heat. And not only are we going to build a new jail, but you’re not even going to have input. It’s the epitome of being tone deaf, if you ask me.

C&S: It’s going to happen at some point, eh?

RDJ: Whether it’s five, 10 years, it should happen. The question becomes the process. And also part of the process is how do you package it? You can’t just tell communities that you’re going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a state-of-the-art jail when kids are in schools that are sub-par structurally. Where people are in public housing and they’re freezing. When kids are being exposed to lead paint in 2018. I thought we got past lead paint in NYCHA back in the 1990s when Giuliani was mayor.