The Federal monitor in charge of overseeing reforms at the Housing Authority stated in a recently-released report that the COVID-19 crisis has slowed the agency’s progress toward meeting deadlines to eliminate unsafe and unsanitary conditions in city developments.
Last year, NYCHA kicked off lead-paint inspections at 135,000 apartments using advanced X-ray equipment as part of a deal reached among the de Blasio administration, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office requiring the Authority to address longstanding problems including mold, broken elevators, aging heating equipment and lead-paint exposure.
'An Enormous Impact'
Although NYCHA planned to finish the inspections by the end of this year, testing started off slowly. By March 26, 39,933 apartments, or about 30 percent of the units, had been inspected, and Federal Monitor Bart Schwartz believed that the pace of the inspections would be even further compromised by the pandemic.
“COVID-19 has had an enormous impact on NYCHA’s ability to enter apartments for inspections and repairs,” he said. “When the crisis abates, there will be a backlog of work orders. NYCHA must develop a strategy for prioritizing and completing those jobs.”
The crisis has affected the agency's remedial work in several ways, including increased absenteeism among staff working across the Authority’s 325 developments. The report stated that by the first week of April, more than 20 percent of NYCHA employees had called out, which was more than double its typical absence rate. Staffing levels have since rebounded, the monitor noted.
COVID-19 also has slowed NYCHA’s ability to procure pest exterminators by its June 30 deadline, as well as plans to check a sample of more than 8,000 apartments for roaches, rats and other vermin in order to create a census of NYCHA’s pest population.
NYCHA came under intense scrutiny after its then-Chairwoman Shola Olatoye, who stepped down in May 2018, falsely reported to HUD in 2016 that the agency conducted thousands of lead-paint inspections that never happened.
Long-term lead-paint exposure is especially dangerous for children younger than 6, who can develop serious health problems, including developmental delays. During the summer of 2018, it was revealed that between January 2012 and June 2018, 1,160 children living in public housing had lead levels between 5 and 9 micrograms per deciliter of blood, the level at which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a public-health intervention.
The agreement required NYCHA to inspect and abate apartments built before 1978 that house or were frequently visited by children under 6. Mr. Schwartz previously criticized the HA for not doing enough to find apartments in which young children frequently spent time, such as kids visiting their grandparents in senior developments.
In the current report, he praised NYCHA for boosting its efforts through a door-knocking campaign—it discovered 5,560 apartments where children under 6 lived or visited that required inspection, up from its initial finding of only 3,028 units in February 2019.
'A Hopeful Sign'
“While NYCHA continues to struggle with its lead-paint obligations in the agreement, these recent efforts are a hopeful sign of improvement,” the monitor wrote.
The agreement also required NYCHA to create a Compliance Department, an Environmental Health and Safety Department, and a Quality Assurance Unit, but each has shifted focus to distributing personal protective equipment and overseeing how staff are cleaning common areas in order to prevent the spread of the virus.
COVID-19 has disproportionately affected black and Latino residents, as well as low-income communities. So far, more than 1,200 NYCHA residents have died from the coronavirus.
“NYCHA’s COVID response is presently its most pressing concern, and rightly so,” Mr. Schwartz stated. “While some agreement obligations must take a backseat for the moment, we look forward to the time when New Yorkers can return to some semblance of normalcy and NYCHA can resume its progress in improving its core services.”
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