Ten Years After NYCHA Mold Repair Pact, Progress Is Tarnished by Delays

The federal consent decree known as the Baez agreement has helped push the city housing authority to make much needed repairs faster, tenants say.

By Greg Smith for The City 
April 22, 2024

On a September day in 2021, Blanca Ramos was relaxing in her meticulously decorated living room in Manhattan’s Jacob Riis Houses, under a wall plaque that reads “Grateful Hearts Gather Here.” Suddenly, something occurred that might test one’s ability to remain grateful.

There was a resounding crash in her kitchen.

She rushed in to see what happened and beheld that the wall cabinets containing her dishes had crashed to the ground. More specifically, they had simply fallen off a wall that was soaked through by a water leak that she’d been complaining to the New York City Housing Authority about for a year.

The now-barren wall was crawling with black mold.

Frustrated by the lack of action, she called the Ombudsperson Call Center (OCC), which was set up in 2020 as part of a court-monitored consent decree known as the Baez agreement that required NYCHA to confront the plague of toxic mold in so many of its aging apartments. With the ombudsperson on Ramos’ case, the housing authority began the process of finally fixing the underlying problem that had caused the kitchen calamity — a chronically leaky pipe.

That December, NYCHA trade workers took out the sink, opened up the wall and patched up the pipe. By mid-January they’d replastered the wall and installed a new sink and cabinets. The leak was gone.

“That’s only because I was calling the OCC and OCC was calling them and telling them to come in and do the job,” she said, making clear her gratitude for the help. “I’ve heard of people being out a sink for a year, two years. So that was a quick job because of the ombudsperson.”

Last week marked the 10th anniversary of the day a federal judge approved the unprecedented Baez agreement that saw NYCHA committing in writing for the first time to aggressively remedy the pervasive mold scourge that for decades had endangered the lives of thousands of public housing residents.

The Baez litigation is the only case in recent history that imposed court oversight on the nation’s biggest public housing authority, an agency that houses 450,000 residents in 176,000 apartments across 2,400 buildings — most of which were built before 1970. 

Ten years in, Baez has clearly transformed NYCHA’s broken system for responding to mold and water leak repair requests. A once faltering and uncoordinated response to confronting these complaints has vastly improved. NYCHA officials say new water leak and mold repair requests have dropped by 50%, and 6,200 non-functioning roof fans that were supposed to combat moisture buildup that causes mold have been put back in service.

This did not happen overnight and it didn’t come for free. From the start of the consent decree on April 17, 2014 through October 2023, the city housing authority spent more than $15 million on lawyers and experts in the case, according to records obtained by THE CITY through a Freedom of Information Law request.

That includes $8.6 million just to hire a tech expert, Stout Risius Ross LLC, $2.6 million for a mold remediation expert, Microecologies Inc., plus nearly $2 million for two outside law firms — Herzfeld Rubin and Paul Weiss — hired by NYCHA to represent the authority’s interests. NYCHA also paid about $720,000 to law firms representing the plaintiffs, although most of that work was handled by the firm Proskauer Rose pro bono.

‘We’re Not Going to Stop Climbing’

A group of congregations and nonprofits organized by the housing advocates Metro Industrial Areas Foundation filed the lawsuit 10 years ago. They say the agreement forced NYCHA to clean up mold for 30,000 families and fix non-functioning ventilation systems for 64,000 residents.

“Ten years of the Baez consent decree has demonstrated one critical thing: progress is possible in public housing, but only when NYCHA and all the other relevant parties take effective action,” said the Rev. Francis Skelly of Immaculate Conception Church in the South Bronx.

Skelly in particular singled out the work of the ombudsperson Ramos relied on to get her apartment repaired.

But he and Metro IAF also note that while there have been many wins, the backlog of unresolved mold and leak requests has more than doubled from 35,000 in late 2019 to nearly 77,000 as of this month. The average number of days to complete a mold work order is now 266, compared to 38 days in October 2019, according to NYCHA records.

Under the terms of the settlement, NYCHA agreed to complete mold and leak work orders that require simple repairs within seven days, while work orders that need more complex repairs would be done within 15 days.

As of Jan. 31, NYCHA has done well with the simple repairs: 97% are now completed within seven days. Complex repairs, however, did not fare as well: Only 31% get completed within the required 15 days.

“We feel like we’re about 3,000 feet up the mountain, but the mountain is 20,000 feet tall,” Skelly said. “We’re not going to stop climbing until we get to the top. Public housing has to be a decent place for all of the residents to call home.”

The battle to conquer mold has been difficult in part because it’s not a simple problem and it has potentially dire effects on tenants — particularly tenants with asthma and other respiratory issues who have struggled for years to get NYCHA to properly clean up their homes.

Typically, it would take months and sometimes years for NYCHA to address specific requests, and almost always officials — confronting an overwhelming backlog of repair orders — would perform quick-fix cleanups and call the repair closed. This tactic failed to address underlying issues that triggered the mold (usually leaking water pipes) and gave the problem an element of déjà vu: mold would return days after a “fixup” and the process would start all over again.

The authority did not have an organized approach to this problem, the remedy for which usually involved multiple trades workers — plumbers, plasterers, painters — whose efforts had to be carefully coordinated. And thousands of roof fans that were supposed to draw moisture out of bathrooms and kitchens no longer functioned by the early 2000s, while the ducts to which those fans were connected were clogged with years of debris that rendered them useless.

When Metro IAF filed suit, it argued that the Housing Authority’s failure to address the scourge of mold amounted to a violation of the federal Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). 

More Money and Effort Needed

The lawsuit’s namesake lead plaintiff was Maribel Baez, a resident of Melrose Houses in The Bronx. She took three medications to deal with asthma and lived in an apartment with a bathroom that had no window. For six years, she says, she complained about a water leak behind the wall that was causing mold to build up in her bathroom.

In 2012, she says, NYCHA staff came to her apartment, replaced the bathroom walls with finished wallboard, but did nothing to plug the leak behind the wall. As a result, mold returned in a month. Soon after, Baez began her new role as lead plaintiff in what would become the first court-monitored oversight of NYCHA.

On April 17, 2014, Manhattan Federal Judge William Pauley III approved the decree to settle the suit, committing NYCHA to adopting reforms to ensure mold cleanups that were both efficient and effective. Until all promised fixes were complete, a federal judge would now be watching and enforcing the agreement.

Not surprisingly, NYCHA didn’t come close to meeting the goals of this agreement. As the decree neared its expiration date, the average time to complete repairs still exceeded 25 days and the rate of mold recurring in “repaired” apartments remained at nearly 50%.

In 2018 Judge Pauley ordered both sides to “confer and formulate a concrete and realistic plan,” and in April 2018 a rewrite emerged. NYCHA was still required to reduce the recurrence rate to zero and meet strict time requirements for repairs set by the original agreement, but now new stakeholders entered the equation.

NYCHA hired Microecologies, a mold remediation expert, and Stout, a tech specialist, to track the effectiveness of the repairs. And for the first time, tenants got their own lobbyist to directly push NYCHA — César de Castro, the ombudsperson appointed by the court.

Since taking the role, de Castro has assisted thousands of families seeking help by directly pressuring NYCHA to address specific cases and staying on top of public housing bureaucrats throughout the process until the job was done.

That was what happened with Ramos when her kitchen cabinet crashed in the fall of 2021.

Ramos, 66, had lived in the Riis Houses in the East Village for 42 years. She and her husband raised five children in the three-bedroom overlooking the East River and the FDR Drive. In September 2020, after NYCHA had temporarily suspended all but emergency repairs because of the pandemic, she says she heard what she thought was a water pouring down behind the wall between her bathroom and her kitchen.

A NYCHA worker came, opened up the wall, said he checked and didn’t see a leak. He taped a plastic cover over the hole in her wall and left. But Ramos says she could still hear the sound of water, so her husband removed the plastic and shone his phone light inside. Sure enough, there was a hole in a pipe that emitted a steady stream of water, she says.

She put in a second request, but before NYCHA could respond she said the electrical outlet in her bathroom — which is located next to the leaky pipe — began shooting sparks then shorted out. This time she called the fire department.

The FDNY came, shut off the power, removed the outlet and pledged to contact NYCHA about what had happened.

“If you don’t call the cops, if you don’t call the fire department, you don’t call the elected officials, nothing gets done,” Ramos said.

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