by Greg B. Smith for The New York Daily News

December 16, 2013

The City Housing Authority is about to come under judicial oversight to erase one of its worst plagues — creeping mold in aging apartments, the Daily News has learned.

The city signed off on a consent decree Monday that will give a federal judge the ability to ensure the New York City Housing Authority finally eradicates the longstanding and dangerous condition.

The federal court intervention is seen as a game-changer in the battle to reform NYCHA's inability to tackle an issue that affects hundreds of tenants citywide.

The residents have waited in vain, sometimes for years, for NYCHA to answer requests to clean up toxic mold. Often the work was useless, with the agency painting over the mold without fixing the leak that caused it.

Now, with the power of a federal court behind them, tenants and their attorneys can for the first time go directly to a judge to impose significant financial penalties on NYCHA if it doesn't get the job done right.

Over the past year, the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation, a civic group, has threatened to file suit charging the city has for years violated the Americans With Disabilities Act by housing hundreds of tenants with asthma in mold-infested units.

The Monday settlement will allow a Manhattan federal judge to monitor NYCHA's promised improvements over the next three years. Both sides will go to court Tuesday to file the agreement and be assigned a judge.

Most important for tenants, the agreement makes mold abatement NYCHA's top priority, with the agency committing to remedy all mold conditions — including the underlying leaky pipes — within 15 days of receiving a complaint.

NYCHA must then follow up within 60 days to make sure the work was done correctly and to ensure mold and moisture "have been eliminated entirely."

"This agreement is long in coming," declared tenant Maribel Baez, whose asthma has been aggravated for years by mold in her Marlboro Houses apartment in Brooklyn. "My hope is that (with) Metro IAF, our lawyers and a federal court all keeping NYCHA and the city accountable, conditions for me and my fellow tenants will begin to improve."

For the first time, the authority will also perform additional random inspections of apartments with more serious mold issues.

The results of all of this will be compiled in quarterly reports and submitted quarterly to plaintiffs' attorneys. If NYCHA is not meeting its burden, the lawyers can ask the judge to impose fines.

The agreement has been in the works for months. After Metro IAF teamed up with the Natural Resources Defense Council and threatened to sue in December 2012, Deputy Mayor Robert Steel asked for a "pause" to reach a deal. Late last week, both sides worked out the final obstacles.

The settlement comes after NYCHA Chairman John Rhea delayed pursuit of federal funds that could have addressed the problem years ago.

Rhea was urged by Metro IAF to go after $500 million in federal funds to pay for much-needed repairs, including mold remediation.

At the time, Rhea declined to go after the money, claiming he didn't have qualified staff to do the work. Then in October 2012, he reversed himself and announced he would apply for the funds. The money was finally approved in July, nearly three years after Rhea was first urged to ask for it.

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