nycha

NYCHA Monitor Accuses Agency of Failing to Get the Lead Out

Some buildings within the Queensbridge Houses were identified as having lead paint, May 14, 2019.
Some buildings within the Queensbridge Houses were identified as having lead paint, May 14, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The New York City Housing Authority’s new federal monitor says the agency is already breaking its promises to clean up lead paint and — once again — is not telling the whole truth.

Monitor Bart Schwartz fired off a blistering letter Thursday to interim NYCHA Chair Kathryn Garcia, accusing her of giving a “misleading impression” during testimony at a May 7 City Council hearing about the housing agency’s efforts to remove lead from apartments with kids.

The monitor was appointed, in part, due to NYCHA’s history of not performing required lead paint checks and then covering up those failures. More than 1,100 young children living in NYCHA have been poisoned by lead in the last five years.

In his letter, Schwartz alleged NYCHA is still not aggressively tracking down all the apartments with lead paint where children live or visit frequently — and can’t possibly meet a self-imposed deadline to test 135,000 flats where lead is suspected by the end of next year.

He also suggested that number could grow if some of the 50,000 apartments “exempted” from testing in the past turn out to have lead.

Bart Schwartz.
Bart Schwartz. Photo: Business Wire

Schwartz revealed that private-sector vendors brought in to abate lead paint were caught by NYCHA performing inspections in an unsafe manner — but contended NYCHA didn’t let him know about the “transgressions” until his staff found out about them.

He said he wrote Garcia to “express my concern to you about NYCHA’s efforts to comply with the letter and spirit” of the agreement announced Jan. 31 between Mayor de Blasio and U.S. Housing Secretary Benjamin Carson triggering his appointment.

The monitor was brought in March 1, picked by HUD and Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, who’d sued NYCHA after finding managers covering up failures to address lead paint, mold infestation and other woes afflicting the 400,000 New Yorkers living in public housing.

‘Truthful and Forthright’

Garcia — the city’s Sanitation commissioner who is still overseeing NYCHA temporarily because Mayor Bill de Blasio has missed two deadlines to pick a permanent chair — fired back in a letter sent to Schwartz late Friday.

She insisted her Council testimony was “truthful and forthright,” and accused Schwartz, a former federal prosecutor, of misunderstanding what NYCHA is doing to live up to the lead paint agreement.

“Your decision to eschew the protocols available to you under our agreement in favor of an unexpected and unwarranted public expression of frustration is unfortunate and misguided,” she wrote.

Interim NYCHA chair, Kathryn Garcia, speaks with reporters at City Hall, Feb. 6, 2019.
Interim NYCHA chair, Kathryn Garcia, speaks with reporters at City Hall, Feb. 6, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

In his letter, Schwartz questioned Garcia’s May 7 testimony to the City Council, alleging she “omitted material details about lead paint issues that are required to be addressed now and in the future of NYCHA.”

He worried that omissions “may have resulted in a misleading impression being given to the City Council members and the public about how these issues are being addressed.”

The agreement requires that NYCHA inspect and abate lead paint in units where children under six live or visit on a regular basis, such as apartments of relatives who watch kids while their parents are at work.

But Schwartz accused NYCHA of a “failure to make an acceptable effort” to identify these apartments, noting the agency merely took the word of tenants and didn’t reach out to building managers or use other city records to find more kids living at NYCHA.

He also said the agency had done little to no investigation to pinpoint kids who visit NYCHA apartments on a regular basis.

“The Council and the public have a right to know how little effort NYCHA undertook to identify such apartments” with children, he added. “The health and welfare of NYCHA’s children and the letter and spirit of the agreement require much greater efforts than those in which NYCHA is presently engaging.”

Garcia said NYCHA is continuing to track down all apartments with children, including by surveying all residents.

X-ray-like Scanning Drags

De Blasio announced last summer that by the end of 2020, NYCHA would use an X-ray-like technique called XRF to test 135,000 apartments where lead is presumed present.

To meet de Blasio’s goal, NYCHA would have to test 6,750 units every month. As of last week, only 1,740 apartments had been tested since April — 1.3% of the 135,000 apartments on the list.

At that rate, testing won’t be finished until 2024 – long after de Blasio is gone from City Hall.

Housing Secretary Ben Carson announces a deal with Mayor Bill de Blasio to have a new federal monitor overseeing NYCHA, Jan. 31, 2019.
Housing Secretary Ben Carson announces a deal with Mayor Bill de Blasio to have a new federal monitor overseeing NYCHA, Jan. 31, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The monitor raised the possibility that another 50,000 units deemed “exempt” from testing by HUD in the 1990s might have to be looked at, too. Serious questions have arisen about the legitimacy of the exemptions after apartments in buildings deemed “clean” registered the presence of lead paint.

Garcia insisted NYCHA will meet its deadline, and said the agency was aggressively checking “exempted” buildings.

In recent months, NYCHA hired painting vendors to remediate lead paint. They’re required to follow strict rules to keep lead dust from spreading during their work, but Sanitation Department inspectors Garcia brought in found some had committed numerous violations.

Schwartz alleged that NYCHA did not tell him about this, and that his investigators learned of it on their own. He blasted the authority for what he called “no disclosure of painting contractor transgressions.”

Garcia called Schwartz’s claim that NYCHA was hiding the issue “specious,” noting an April email to members of the monitor’s team at Schwartz’s firm, Guidepost Solutions, that included “information about non-compliance” by the vendors.

“We are very perplexed by the implication that we have not disclosed this to you,” she wrote.

Dueling Letters Sent All Over

Schwartz’ and Garcia’s letters were sent to multiple parties, including Deputy Mayor for Housing Vicki Been, Corporation Counsel Zachary Carter, a HUD official in Washington, D.C., and HUD Regional Administrator Lynne Patton.

City Councilmember Alicka Ampry-Samuel, chair of the Public Housing Committee, also received the dueling missives. She praised Schwartz for detailing his concerns.

City Councilmember Alicka Ampry-Samuel
City Councilmember Alicka Ampry-Samuel

She noted a 2017 incident in which then- NYCHA Chair Shola Olatoye was caught making misleading statements about the agency’s lead efforts during another Council hearing.

“I appreciate the quick response of the monitor,” Ampry-Samuel said. “We haven’t seen this level of follow-up after a Council hearing, ever…. I hope the perceived transparency found in the tone from the monitor is an indication will we see results from the agreement.”

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