by Greg B. Smith for The City
June 29, 2023
After nearly a decade of oversight by a federal court, the New York City Housing Authority has made some real progress but is still struggling to conquer one of the greatest scourges to the homes of many of the city’s 450,000 public housing residents: toxic mold.
Since 2019, the rate of monthly new tenant requests for mold and leak cleanups has dropped by more than 50%, according to a comprehensive internal report NYCHA compiled that was filed with the court last week.
Comparing four months in 2019 (September through December) to the first four months of this year, NYCHA found the rate of requests had plummeted from an average of 2,400 per month to an average of 1,200 per month.
At the same time, however, NYCHA still struggles with a rapidly growing backlog of older work orders that have yet to be resolved. That backlog has spiked dramatically, with 35,718 unresolved mold repair requests in October 2019 rising to 90,589 in April 2023, a 150% increase.
NYCHA management drafted the report at the request of U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-The Bronx), who asked for an update on the federal lawsuit filed in December 2013 by the grassroots community organizing group Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. As the original class action lawsuit approaches its 10th anniversary, the report requests $132 million in additional funding to address the backlog.
The suit, brought on behalf of a tenant with asthma, Maribel Baez, accused NYCHA of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to remedy unhealthy mold conditions in apartments where tenants with respiratory ailments live. NYCHA agreed to settle the suit and be monitored by a federal judge while the authority cleaned up the problem.
“This report shows that with strong independent oversight, NYCHA has been able to make real improvements in fixing mold and leaks, leading to better conditions for thousands of NYCHA families,” said Rev. Getulio Cruz of Monte Sion Christian Church, a Metro IAF member. “Unfortunately, it’s clear that most NYCHA tenants are still suffering. The increased funding NYCHA calls for in this report is critical.”
A Band-Aid Approach
The 68-page report provides the most detailed documentation of both the victories and failures of the Baez case, reflecting the only aspect of NYCHA’s management that’s overseen by a court. A second lawsuit filed by prosecutors over broader mismanagement was withdrawn in 2019 after NYCHA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agreed to bring in an independent monitor instead of continuing to report to a judge.
Regarding one of its biggest challenges — the ever-growing backlog of requests for mold abatement and repair — NYCHA management says the pandemic contributed to the problem because so many repairs were postponed in 2020 and 2021. But mostly they blame the accelerating deterioration of the authority’s 2,100 aging buildings, where behind-the-wall water leaks regularly trigger the growth of mold.
In most cases, fully addressing the underlying causes of mold is a major endeavor, involving tearing open walls, replacing entire plumbing systems, and then replastering and repainting when the repair is done. These types of repairs are extensive and also expensive, and NYCHA is struggling financially.
By the authority’s estimate, more than $40 billion is needed to bring the entire portfolio up to par. A growing number of tenants stopped paying their rent during the pandemic and did not start again when the moratorium ended in January 2022. As a result, NYCHA now has nearly $500 million in rent arrears, with a collection rate of around 63%.
With these large-scale capital projects increasing in cost by $1 billion per year, NYCHA for years has resorted to a Band-Aid approach. Workers fix one apartment at a time, sometimes performing the same patch job in the same apartment again and again.
“Because NYCHA lacks these funds, NYCHA conducts local repairs when comprehensive capital projects are needed,” the report states.
The more complicated the root source of the problem, the longer it takes to repair — a challenge that’s only gotten worse. Intricate jobs require skilled trade workers such as painters, plumbers and carpenters. In October 2019, this type of repair took an average of 38 days to complete. By January 2023, the delay had grown to nearly 300 days.
‘Progress Can Be Made’
After reviewing the report he had requested, Torres called the Baez case a “quietly transformative success story, and one that’s gone mostly unnoted.” The key, he said, is that court oversight kept pressure on NYCHA and forced the authority to alter its pattern of mismanagement and neglect that had deliberately hidden scandalous living conditions from the public.
“I’m impressed,” Torres told THE CITY. “I feel that the Baez agreement has been a powerful catalyst for reform. For the first time NYCHA is not just clamoring for funding. The Housing Authority is actually changing the culture of the agency and driving measurable improvements.”
He pointed to the creation of an ombudsperson, who is tasked with helping residents navigate the bureaucracy and get their mold repair needs addressed quickly.
“The Baez settlement,” said Torres, “has shown that progress can be made.”
It was a long road to get to this point.
The first efforts were haphazard and little headway was made. But after then-Manhattan Federal Judge William Pauley ordered the authority to redo its approach in 2019 and come up with more specific procedures and adhere to a strict timeline, progress began to take hold.
Since then, NYCHA has increased staff to specifically address mold issues and hired independent data analysts, mold experts and an ombudsperson to help tenants expedite work order requests.
And NYCHA zeroed in on apartments with particularly bad, longstanding mold conditions, where the infestation covered more than 100 square feet.
At the Vladeck Houses on the Lower East Side, workers cleaned up black mold that completely covered the kitchen ceiling of one apartment on Madison Street. At the Brownsville Houses, they removed a festering toxic mess that covered much of the walls within one Osborn Street unit’s kitchen, and a large area in a bedroom’s ceiling.
With these targeted buildings, they focused on identifying and repairing the root cause of the mold — often leaking water pipes. Although root-cause cleanups were done on a fairly limited basis, it was a big change from the past practice of wiping down walls with bleach and waiting for the mold to return.
In the last four years, the problem of recurring mold infestations has diminished measurably. As NYCHA manages more and more to eliminate root causes, the rate of recurrence dropped from 40% in 2019 to just 14% this year.
Another key success has been greatly improving air circulation that’s essential to reduce shower moisture buildup in bathrooms, another typical source of mold.
About half of NYCHA’s 2,100 buildings rely on mechanical exhaust systems powered by roof fans, many of which had been broken for years. That caused air vents to become clogged with debris, inhibiting air circulation in bathrooms.
During the pandemic, an investigation by THE CITY found that flaws in the system caused poor circulation that potentially contributed to the spread of COVID-19 in NYCHA buildings. Internal emails showed that a NYCHA consultant had raised concerns about this, and NYCHA fell behind its timeline to fix the problem.
But NYCHA accelerated the fan replacement initiative last year, and by November said they cleaned out the ducts and managed to repair or replace 80% of roof fans in those buildings with the old mechanical exhaust systems.