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OpinionColumnistsMark Chiusano

NYCHA’s new motto should be, ‘We could have done more sooner’

At a hearing about NYCHA's failure to conduct

At a hearing about NYCHA's failure to conduct required lead tests, Shola Olatoye recounted a litany of missteps. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

A little phrase uttered at a Tuesday City Council hearing might work as the new NYCHA motto. Chair and CEO Shola Olatoye had been hauled in before a packed and angry crowd to explain yet another in a string of NYCHA embarrassments.

“In hindsight, could we have done more sooner?” she asked. “Perhaps.”

She was talking about coming clean that the authority had skipped years of required lead inspections. That includes federally mandated annual inspections of some 55,000 apartments that might have lead paint. Plus, to satisfy local law, inspections of about 4,200 apartments where a child under age 6 lives. Kids, of course, being particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning and liable to inhale the paint chips or lead dust that can come uncovered in old apartments.

NYCHA began missing both inspection requirements after misinterpreting a change in the rules by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2012. It took until 2016 for Olatoye to figure out what was going on, she testified (NYCHA later falsely certified federal compliance anyway), and another year before alerting residents.

More sooner, for sure

The hearing was a litany of NYCHA missteps on the lead issue. On NYCHA workers who may not have had the right certification to deal with lead, but cleared apartments anyway. On the way Mayor Bill de Blasio’s NYCHA administrators didn’t notice the Bloomberg-era lead error, despite lead being a known entity in city buildings.

And the issue of doing more sooner also applies to the state of lead inspections today. You might think that the revelation of four years of skipped inspections would kick the authority to get all its relevant apartments checked ASAP, playing catchup.

But here are the numbers: for the 55,000 units where NYCHA had been skipping annual visual inspections, just 8,900 will be inspected by the end of the year by an outside contractor NYCHA hired in October.

No one thinks Olatoye has an easy job. Even Ritchie Torres, chair of the City Council’s Public Housing Committee, allowed that “you run one of the largest institutions in the country.”

Olatoye inherited a $17 billion gap in unmet capital needs, a funding crisis that was “one of the factors that led to our gaps in compliance,” she said.

City leaders argue there is no lead crisis. Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Herminia Palacio testified to a steep drop in lead poisoning in recent decades, with lower rates in public housing than private. Between 2010 and 2016, she said there were 1.3 million children under the age of 18 tested for lead in NYC. More than 7,700 had elevated blood levels, and over that time period 21 apartments tested positive for lead in NYCHA and were remediated.

Add this to the NYCHA backlog

But universal lead tests are only mandated in New York State for very young children, and council members questioned Olatoye and Palacio on the possibility that some older children might have fallen through the cracks due to skipped inspections. So as usual NYCHA is being nudged to get its act together: offering free lead testing for children in certain units and painting even when there isn’t a lead-based paint issue. The authority says it will be in compliance with local law by early 2018, with federal compliance en route. More soon.

It’s a story residents have heard before, from elevator fixes to mold remediation to paint jobs or kitchen repairs, or simply waiting on heat and hot water. That scaffolding that makes walking home a little labyrinth — maybe it will be gone someday. If only sooner more than later.

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