The Federal Monitor charged with overseeing reforms at the embattled Housing Authority accused agency officials of not doing enough to get rid of lead paint in thousands of apartments while giving a “misleading” impression to the public that it was.
Bart Schwartz, who was appointed Federal monitor earlier this year, wrote a scathing letter May 30 to NYCHA Interim Chair Kathryn Garcia claiming that agency officials painted a too-optimistic picture at a City Council hearing on the issue earlier last month.
A deal reached in late January among the de Blasio administration, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office requires NYCHA to address longstanding problems including mold, broken elevators and lead-paint exposure.
The de Blasio administration April 15 kicked off lead-paint inspections at 135,000 apartments using advanced X-ray equipment, with plans to finish testing by the end of next year. Though it anticipated that the 75 inspectors would perform about 5,000 to 7,000 inspections each month, Mr. Schwartz noted that by May 17, just 1,740 units had been tested.
He argued that at the current pace, “there is currently very little likelihood that XRF-testing of the 135,000-targeted units can be completed by the end of 2020.”
The Federal Monitor was appointed after investigators determined that from 2012 through 2016, NYCHA did not perform required lead-paint inspections and falsely certified that it was in compliance with HUD rules.
Last summer, 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. Long-term exposure to lead is particularly hazardous to children under 6, who can develop serious health problems.
At the May 7 hearing, Ms. Garcia testified that NYCHA had abated lead paint in 2,336 apartments where young children lived and attempted to do so at another 223 units.
Not Trying Hard Enough?
Although agency officials said that they did not know exactly how many apartments housing children under 6 contained lead paint, Mr. Schwartz believed that NYCHA wasn’t acting aggressively to find out.
He said that officials relied solely on tenant disclosure forms to determine which units had young children living in them. He also noted that NYCHA had made “no effort” to identify apartments where young children frequently visited—which was required under the agreement—citing examples of kids visiting their grandparents in senior developments.
“NYCHA did not speak with or survey building managers and Superintendents, did not conduct any site visits, did not review any other city records, and/or did not engage in any other actions that might reasonably lead to the identification of apartments occupied by children under 6,” he wrote. “The health and welfare of NYCHA’s children and the letter and spirit of the agreement require much greater efforts than those in which NYCHA is presently engaging.”
Mr. Schwartz claimed that NYCHA did not disclose unspecified violations by painting vendors. But Ms. Garcia, who is on leave from her role as Sanitation Commissioner, rebutted in a letter sent the following day, arguing that she “fundamentally disagreed” with the “grossly premature assertion that, based on just over a month of data, you believe that NYCHA will be unable to complete its critical [X-ray fluorescence] initiative by the end of 2020.”
‘Ramp Up Over Time’
She continued, “as with any large initiative, the XRF initiative will ramp up over time, and we fully expect to soon be completing the XRF work at a pace that will enable us to meet the end of 2020 timeline as we add staff and increase the efficiency of the process.”
Ms. Garcia also denied that NYCHA officials tried to hide the vendor non-compliance, pointing to an e-mail sent by the agency in April that mentioned the violations.
“Your statement that ‘my office had to learn through its own efforts’ of lead safe work rule violations by vendors is specious,” she wrote.
On “Inside City Hall” June 3, Mayor de Blasio questioned the monitor’s tactics, and pointed out one challenge in making sure lead paint was eliminated from every apartment where young children stayed was the fact that residents sometimes did not allow inspectors inside their homes.
“There’s no lack of effort and focus here and I thought the notion that there was some lack of clarity was just not fair. I think Kathryn Garcia is a person of real integrity, she’s been very straight forward when asked questions about exactly what’s going on,” he said. “To be fair to the monitor, in the most-recent communication he reiterated that he wants to work together and I take him at his word. We want him to be a partner, so I am going to look forward with that expectation.”
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