“It’s a mess up in here,” teaching assistant Dawn Massy said last week, as she carried groceries home to her New York City Housing Authority apartment in Brooklyn. Let her count the ways: there are problems with mold and mildew. Leaks sometimes get the hallway closets wet. And then there was the fear of lead paint.
At the Williamsburg Houses where Massy, 57, lives, NYCHA’s testing at one point showed that “91 percent of all apartments tested have lead paint,” according to a scathing federal complaint against the authority filed last month. Massy was concerned enough that she went to a doctor to check her lead levels about a year ago.
The doctor said her levels were normal, and she was relieved. But lead paint can be dangerous, particularly to children, when it flakes and is ingested — and the state of NYCHA is such that flaking paint is a common concern. That’s part of the disrepair that led to a terrible revelation last month: More than 800 kids under the age of 6 living in NYCHA have been found to have elevated lead levels in recent years, as defined by guidlines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
NYCHA watchers have focused on lead — a toxic substance that can have poisonous effects — since they learned that the agency skipped required lead testing for years and misled the public about its non-compliance.
Documenting NYCHA’s struggles
But widespread concerns about lead paint are just one of NYCHA’s recent embarrassments, which are now spelled out in grim detail in court papers: A years-long investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan led to an eyebrow-raising settlement last month, in which the city tentatively agreed to pay more than $1 billion over the next five years for needed capital funding and to accept federal oversight of NYCHA.
The 80-page complaint is a devastating screed covering everything from roaches to lack of heat to abundant trash. Some of the document covers the pitfalls of inadequate funding, other parts show shocking deception or inattention on the part of some employees. A brief sample:
- “Peeling paint is pervasive in NYCHA developments. NYCHA’s data shows that in 2016 alone, residents logged more than 38,000 complaints related to paint and plaster issues at developments containing lead paint.”
- “Pests and vermin infestations are common, and as senior New York City officials have acknowledged, NYCHA ‘has no idea how to handle rats.’”
- “In recent years, the New York City Department of Investigation has found that NYCHA fails to properly conduct key safety checks of items like smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in its apartments.”
And then there were “Quick Fix Tips” the complaint says were provided to NYCHA staff to mislead federal inspectors about problematic conditions: suggestions like painting some cardboard rather than replacing tiles. The complaint also describes how one former NYCHA deputy director tricked inspectors by putting a refrigerator motor inside an inoperative roof fan.
Sometimes, it can seem that the only thing NYCHA has done well is not fall to the ground.
That’s an accomplishment of sorts. NYCHA is the largest public housing authority in the country, and it has lasted from an era of Fireside Chats all the way through to social media virality. In other cities, once-proud public housing experiments have been blasted to the ground. In NYC, NYCHA’s 175,000 apartments provide affordable homes to more than 400,000 people, despite declining support from the federal government that once bolstered the city within a city.
But longevity isn’t any reason for Massy and others like her to live in a “mess.” After we spoke on a cloudy Friday, rain threatened again — not much cause for concern in most parts of NYC but prelude to leaks in plenty of NYCHA quarters.
What’s next for the authority?
Regarding lead, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on NY1 on Monday that NYC would take the heady step of inspecting every NYCHA apartment “that might still have lead in it.” De Blasio said that number was 130,000 potential apartments, nearly three quarters of NYCHA’s total. He also promised quarterly progress reports and free lead tests for concerned parents.
Fixing the underlying disrepair might be even harder, symbolized by the $32 billion in capital needs estimated by the Citizens Budget Commission. The commission has suggested public-private initiatives to help NYCHA turn the corner, some of which de Blasio has embraced.
But there’s plenty of room for improvement within the 11,000-strong ranks of NYCHA employees, which must be clear to its leadership now that the astonishing federal complaint is public.
According to a spokeswoman, NYCHA is “carefully reviewing every allegation” to be “ready to take any needed personnel action this summer.”
Hopefully the complaint will become required summer reading for those within the agency, as well as for anyone who cares about housing conditions for their fellow New Yorkers.