by Michael Powell for The New York Times

July 4, 2011

Sarita Latchman, a vibrant 42-year-old mother and former parks worker, has a sound like a baby’s rattle at the back of her throat.

Which is not surprising, as her apartment in the Jefferson Houses in East Harlem is speckled with soot-black mold. A thick carpet of it runs down her bathroom wall and across the ceiling of her children’s bedrooms. Rub it and the spores float, landing on sink tops and children’s hair. They also journey through Ms. Latchman’s nasal passageway into her lungs.

“I’ve had so many CAT scans it’s not funny,” she says, her wheeze like an uninvited and enervating guest. “I’m too young for this.”

Has she reported this, I ask, to the New York City Housing Authority? She shakes her head. “A million thousand times.”

Authority records note that the mold has “dispersed throughout” her apartment since she first saw it in 2006. Last December, an inspector wrote: “Suggest the occupant be relocated immediately.” Ms. Latchman and her five children are still there, along with hundreds of other families in such conditions.

The public housing towers are the shame of the city, ungainly and forgotten stepchildren. The federal government has cut a cumulative $666 million in financing since 2001. City and state officials tiptoed away, too, cutting all funds. The authority has shed 3,100 employees in the past 15 years.

The city also continues to charge the Housing Authority $70 million to police its towers and grounds. Department of Rhetorical Questions: If, in an alternate universe, the Upper West Side became a forbidding urban corner, would the police charge to patrol it?

I would not romanticize public houses. As a kid, I learned how to visit a friend there: avoid eye contact with the hard types, take the steps two at a time, breathe through your nose at the scent of urine and scoot into his apartment.

But in this most expensive city, these towers offer affordable homes to nearly a half-million working-class and poor New Yorkers, a population greater than Cleveland’s.

And New Yorkers took pride that conditions never became so bad that hard-hats had to blow towers up, as mayors did in more hapless cities.

The decline’s tale has many chapters. There were mistaken social policies. And management under many mayors became an ethnic satrapy, reaching a recent nadir when Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani divided it between Latino and Orthodox Jewish supporters.

Matters have improved — the number of working tenants has increased steadily, to about 50 percent. And public housing has loyal champions. Manhattan Together, a coalition of congregations and nonprofit groups, has organized the East Harlem and South Bronx houses and is working with Ms. Latchman. Good Old Lower East Side advocates for the forests of towers on the Lower East Side, and so on across the city.

It’s like a self-help society for orphans.

THE authority’s management under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was deft in refinancing and using land and buildings to pay for new roofs and elevators, although it has lagged in attempting to arrange a badly needed new round of financing.

The Rev. Francis Skelly of South Bronx Churches, which is affiliated with Manhattan Together, recalls taking officials on a tour. When the officials saw the addresses on the list, they dispatched pre-emptive work crews.

“Our people were stationed at each development, so we could see the work crews pull up,” Father Skelly says.

He’s laughing, and why not? It’s funny, after a pathetic fashion.

The Bloomberg administration has many proud victories on the affordable housing front, but it averts its eyes here.

A glory of New York is the peculiar statistical bible known as the Mayor’s Management Report. If streets are dirtier, if inspectors record more heat complaints, it’s there. But the Housing Authority’s chapter appears to be an exercise in fantasy.

It claims workers respond to emergencies in 20 days.

A reader might be incredulous: 20 days in an emergency? But signs suggest that the performance is worse.

The Washington Avenue Houses in the Bronx have a backlog of 5.98 work orders per apartment; at the Stanton Street Houses on the Lower East Side, the backlog is 5.54 per apartment.

The East New York City Line Houses are the worst, with an average work order backlog of 8.08 per apartment.

The mold appeared in Ms. Latchman’s handsome home above First Avenue five years ago, and workers tried three times to paint it over.

Her five children got sick so often that a school attendance officer came to visit. She saw the petri dish of a ceiling and exited on the run.

Ms. Latchman has to stop talking, because her breath is short.

“I want to get out but I have a spot on my lung now,” she says. “You tell me what I do.”

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