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NYC Elevators: Common Causes of Breakdowns and Accidents

It’s a terrifying thought and one of my personal worst fears. A Final Destination type incident involving an elevator sends you hurtling to the ground or flying into the ceiling. That said, there are many ways an elevator can malfunction and ruin your day. I learned this the hard way a few months ago while I was doing my laundry, and the elevator (the only way to get to my building’s laundry room) got stuck between the third and fourth floors. I was there alone, and it was a terrifying experience, especially since it’s a scenario that no one really prepares you for.

If you ever do get stuck in an elevator, and you have a phone, call 911. Or hit the emergency button, which connects you to the fire department. That’s what the 311 website tells you to do, anyway. It also tells you to call 911 if your building has an open and unguarded elevator shaft, an elevator starts moving before the doors are fully closed, or if an elevator opens its doors in between floors. Some people might think calling 911 for these things is a bit extreme, but the truth is that NYC has a massive elevator upkeep problem. Situations, like the ones listed above, have even killed people in recent years. So what’s the deal here?

Elevator Complaints- More Common Than You’d Think

In 2018 New York City Public Housing was in charge of 2,351 complexes. At the same time, inside those complexes, more than 44,000 elevator outages occurred. That’s an average of 121 elevator breakdowns per day. Granted, that number fell by a few hundred in 2019. But that’s still tens of thousands of elevators that have left people trapped, not just inside the elevators themselves, but inside and outside their homes, especially those with disabilities. What’s worse, outages lasted, on average, 12 hours. Many of these outages have lasted for days. When I got stuck, it was only for about ten minutes, but that means I was one of the lucky ones. Reports of angry residents gathering in lobbies after waiting hours for their elevators to come back online are all too common.

These complaints are just public housing, under the jurisdiction of the New York City Housing Authority. The housing authority has a unit of 193 workers to fix these elevators, with an annual budget of 74 million dollars. Though the estimated budget to fix these public housing elevators is 1.5 billion dollars, at least there is a special group dedicated to the maintenance and upkeep of these buildings. But what about private buildings? What’s their elevator situation look like?

NYCHA provides homes for many New Yorkers, but elevator safety is just one of many problems that plague these buildings. Photo by Gerda on Unsplash

The private residence elevator situation does not look good. The Gothamist released a report from of the ten buildings in New York City with the most elevator complaints to 311. The building with the most 311 calls, 1750 East 14th Street in Brooklyn, had 92 complaints about their elevators at the time the list was created. If you’re wondering how a building can rack up that many complaints without suffering some major consequences, it’s sadly nothing new.

Elevator Disasters In NYC

In 2018, a 30-year-old man was crushed by an elevator in the Manhattan luxury building, Manhattan Promenade. The man was stepping out of the elevator when it started moving before the doors had even closed. It’s a tragedy that could’ve been avoided, especially given that the building had failed city elevator inspections seven times over the last ten years and was a constant point of contention among building residents. The building would be repeatedly fined and told to shut down their elevators until they were fixed. This solution sounds good, but, at the time, maintenance workers with too little training in elevator repair would often pass buildings that still had glaring issues.

Luckily, in 2020, New York State passed The Elevator Safety Act, which requires maintenance workers to be licensed by the state in order to build and fix elevators. While not all the data is available about how much this has made buildings safer, this act has at least raised the bar in terms of accountability for elevator maintenance. The issue that still remains, is on the part of building owners themselves to actually take steps to fix these elevators. Like we said earlier, public housing has a team of maintenance workers for this. Private housing does not. So reporting these issues can still be a bit of a dubious process, especially for buildings that haven’t been finished yet.

Take 20 Bruckner Boulevard, for example. This building has had multiple elevator accidents that have killed and injured people. People have died in this construction project in 2018, 2019, and the most recent incident happened in 2021 when a worker was crushed, and another seriously injured, in an elevator shaft accident. The building hadn’t had an elevator violation since 2013, though, so there’s clearly a disconnect in this situation. It seems that, while maintenance workers are well regulated, private landowners and businesses still need better rules that enforce safety measures.

It still doesn’t look amazing for public housing either. Even with the new bill, that branch of the housing authority is still underfunded which is why there are still reports of mass elevator outages in NYC. Are there less than before? Definitely. But there is still a lot, and they are still causing people to be injured unnecessarily.

When I got trapped in my elevator a few months ago, I was terrified. I didn’t know what to do while I was there, or what to do after I got out. I told my super, who called 311, and the elevator was inspected and repaired. That’s how every faulty NYC elevator story should go. Sadly, in the worst case, people are hurt and killed. Regulation of maintenance workers was a big step, but owners need to be held accountable for their dangerous buildings. The fact that structures can receive nearly 100 complaints is alarming considering it should only take one. Things are getting better, and you’re not very likely to get hurt in an elevator accident. That said, I’d like to live in a world where it’s impossible to get trapped in a tiny metal box when I’m just trying to do some laundry. 

Russell is a writer and comic based in New York City. His plays have been featured at Penn State’s Cultural Conversation’s Festival, The NYC Thespis Festival, and Imaginarium’s Inaugural Theater Festival. Follow him on TikTok and Instagram @pooleparty528