public housing

NYCHA Lead ‘Emergency’ as Clean-up Falters and Child Poisonings Rise

The Marble Hill Houses in The Bronx were flagged for NYCHA lead inspections.
The Marble Hill Houses in The Bronx were flagged for NYCHA lead inspections. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The number of children in city public housing poisoned by lead is rising, NYCHA’s new federal monitor declared in a report detailing scandalous housing conditions — including rats scaling garbage piles to invade 14th-floor apartments.

In his first report, monitor Bart Schwartz found the city housing authority has fallen far short of its promises to inspect and clean up lead paint in apartments where young children live — sparking what he called an “emergency.” At least 18 more kids have registered elevated blood-lead levels so far this year, he revealed.

Schwartz’ 81-page report also found failures to address other unsafe and unhealthy apartment conditions affecting NYCHA’s 400,000 residents — including insufficient mold cleanup, an inadequate elevator rehab program and a horrific rat infestation at an East Harlem development.

“These first few months of our work have revealed NYCHA as an organization fraught with serious problems in structure, culture and direction and perhaps even worse,” Schwartz wrote. “No one needs a monitor to be appointed to figure that out.”

Business as Usual

Schwartz was appointed in February as part of the city’s deal with federal Housing Secretary Ben Carson and Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, who documented a pattern by NYCHA managers of covering up squalid conditions in the nation’s largest public housing system.

Mayor de Blasio recently appointed a new NYCHA chairperson, Minneapolis public housing chief Gregory Russ, for $400,000 a year. But he doesn’t start his new job until next month.

In issuing his first quarterly report, Schwartz castigated the authority for business as usual, charging many of the promises made as part of the city’s deal with the federal government had not been kept.

In response, NYCHA General Manager Vito Mustaciuolo made clear the authority is working with Schwartz to attack, in granular detail, the issues raised in the report.

“NYCHA’s challenges are deep rooted and changes will not happen overnight, but with the full commitment of our dedicated staff, we are taking the necessary steps to transform the Authority and to improve the quality of life for our residents,” he stated.

Rats ‘the Size of Cats’

Schwartz’s inspectors cited a nightmarish scenario at the Washington Houses in East Harlem where 400 tenants signed a letter to NYCHA, saying workers refused to enter the basements there for fear of being attacked by rats.

Trash compactors were shut down but tenants continued to stuff garbage down the chutes. Soon, trash stacked to the 14th floor.

A rat scurries through the Washington Houses in East Harlem on July 22, 2019. Photo: Gabriel Sandoval/THE CITY

“The rats then climb the garbage in the compactors to reach upper floors and enter apartments,” stated the tenants’ letter. “We are hostages in our own homes at night… due to the rats that are the size of cats that come out from their burrows that they’ve dug around and under our buildings.”

Sixth-floor tenant Betsy Vega recalled one unwelcome encounter.

“I was going to throw out the garbage and there were rats coming out of the chute,” Vega, 31, told THE CITY Monday.

Schwartz wrote that NYCHA managers initially did not respond to the tenants’ concern — and only did so after until his team brought it to the attention of NYCHA headquarters. But on Monday, tenants said the rat army remains an occupying force.

“They play hide and seek. They play tag. They run,” said tenant Stella Bruno. “I have a small dog and sometimes my dog looks miniature [compared] to the rats outside.”

Schwartz predicted NYCHA will fall short in its systemwide vow to eradicate by Aug. 1 pest infestation in apartments that have received more than one complaint. The authority’s 108 exterminators are overwhelmed dealing with 71,000 backlogged requests to exterminate a variety of vermin, including rats, Schwartz asserted.

A Lead Paint Mess

Schwartz focused much of his attention on the hot-button issue of lead paint. NYCHA for years lied about its failure to properly inspect for and clean up lead paint — an admission that ultimately led to Schwarz’s appointment and promises of an aggressive clean-up.

More than 1,100 children living in NYCHA have registered elevated blood-lead levels since 2012.

Yet the city blew its May 1 deadline to declare some 3,000 apartments with young children “clear” of lead. As of May 31, NYCHA conceded it was still awaiting lab results in 905 of these “immediate action” apartments, and had yet to perform “clearance” tests for 618 more units.

The monitor called this a “frank admission of an unacceptable level of deficiencies.”

Schwartz added: “The backlog of pending clearances can fairly be considered an emergency, as children under six could be ingesting lead particulate if these units were not adequately cleaned after the interim controls were applied.”

He noted NYCHA’s lead hazard unit has no director, several vacancies and is “struggling to achieve its intended purpose…and urgently needs support.”

Tangled in Red Tape

The monitor’s report described a bureaucratic culture where no one takes responsibility, blame is shifted from one division to another and there’s little incentive to take charge.

One disturbing bottleneck came to light after Schwartz’ inspectors encountered a pipe discharging a “putrid liquid” from the ceiling into a laundry room at the Polo Grounds Houses in Upper Manhattan.

A NYCHA worker trying to clean up the mess with a mop said the disgusting leak had been a problem for two months.

Confronted by the monitor, a NYCHA superintendent claimed the pipe couldn’t be repaired without the erection of scaffolding first, and said he’d ordered lumber. He said once the lumber arrived, he’d call a carpenter to build the scaffold, then he’d call a plumber to fix the pipe.

Schwartz noted that after his inspectors intervened, a plumber arrived with a ladder and fixed the pipe in three hours.

A squirrel watches over garbage piled up in front of a Queensbridge Houses building.
A squirrel watches over garbage piled up in front of a Queensbridge Houses building. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“The main problem here is NYCHA’s failure to take action to solve a problem that needed immediate attention,” he wrote. “NYCHA must learn how to identify and fix these problems expeditiously without getting bogged down in layers of bureaucracy or a ‘check the box’ mentality.”

The costs of Schwartz’s salary and team - which have yet to be disclosed - are being born by City Hall. On Monday Freddi Goldstein, press secretary for Mayor Bill de Blasio, insisted City Hall has made “fixing NYCHA an all-hands-on-deck priority.”

“If the Monitor has more concrete solutions, we’re all ears,” she said. “It’s going to take continued partnership from everyone to right this ship and improve the quality of life for all of our residents.”

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