Victor Bach, Senior Housing Policy Analyst,
Community Service Society
at Oversight Hearings,
DOI Investigation Into Lead Based Paint Conditions at NYCHA Apartments
New York City Council Committee on Public Housing
December 5, 2017
The Community Service Society (CSS) is a city-based nonprofit organization that works to improve conditions and opportunities for low-income New Yorkers. For the last 20 years, the issues facing NYCHA and its residents have been a consistent focus in our research and advocacy agenda. We work closely with NYCHA resident leaders and have issued a series of research reports intended to strengthen public housing and its residents.
The acknowledged NYCHA lapses in inspecting for toxic lead-based paint hazards are shocking and serious infractions. We cannot condone the failure to conduct inspections, compounded by false certifications. How the authority came to disregard the well-being of residents—particularly the health of at-risk children—is inexplicable. Furthermore, the Department of Inspection (DOI) found that these lapses have been ongoing since 2012, well before the current administration. That is unacceptable.
To her credit, NYCHA Chair and CEO Shola Olatoye reported the problem to HUD and the mayor when she uncovered it and has been in discussion with the Southern District on its resolution. NYCHA has since accelerated inspections in the 4,200 units in target buildings where young children may be at risk. But the key question now is what we do about it, so that it does not happen again.
Independent Monitoring of NYCHA Inspections
This past week, NYCHA announced the creation of an internal compliance unit; the mayor has appointed someone to lead it. We do not agree that an internal monitoring unit is the answer—the failure of the authority to self-police compliance is at the heart of the present problem. If monitoring is to be done, it should be independent of NYCHA.
It needs to be recognized that toxic lead-based paint risks are not only a NYCHA problem, they are a citywide problem. Indeed, we understand from the Health Department that most of the risks are in the private rental market. The extent to which private landlords are complying with annual inspections required by Local Law 1 is an open question. We recommend the city consider creating a special unit—at HPD, or in the Health Department, or in the Comptroller’s Office—that oversees compliance in all multiple dwellings, including NYCHA public housing.
Additional Funding Needed
NYCHA is starved for the capital it needs to address its $17 billion backlog in major infrastructural improvements to its aging buildings. The 10-year NextGeneration NYCHA plan is, in large part, geared toward generating needed revenue. If NYCHA is to carry out the remediation of apartments where lead risks are found, further state and city funding may be necessary. The city has already made substantial capital commitments to NYCHA preservation—close to $2 billion over ten years—but more may be needed for NYCHA is to fulfill its responsibilities for lead-based paint risks. The state has also registered concern about the problem—if so, it should make a comparable commitment. We recommend the state and city consider special NYCHA funding allocations to address toxic lead-based paint risks where young children are at risk.
Overcoming NYCHA Insularity
As a para-governmental authority, NYCHA enjoys a degree of insulation from direct city control and oversight. Although the mayor appoints the Chair and members of its governing board, NYCHA operations are largely “interior” to the authority, thereby lessening its transparency and accountability. The lead-based paint issue not only threatens NYCHA’s credibility, it is a signal example of the potential consequences of the authority’s interiority.
In what ways is NYCHA insulated? There are several key examples:
Unlike private owners of multiple dwellings, NYCHA—the largest landlord in the city—is exempt from having its housing code violations listed in the public data bases maintained by the NYC Housing Department (HPD) and the Department of Buildings (DOB). As a result, it is difficult to make an external assessment of conditions in NYCHA buildings or determine the extent to which the authority has resolved outstanding code violations. NYCHA code violations and their resolution should be part of the public record.
Secondly, NYCHA residents are at a disadvantage in obtaining repairs. Tenants in private multiple dwellings can call the city’s 311 Citizen Service Center to register complaints about conditions in their apartments. The timing and nature of the complaint is recorded and HPD is notified, so that it can follow up with an inspection as appropriate. NYCHA residents have no comparable rights—they must call an internal NYCHA Customer Complaint Center to register their concerns—if they try 311, it will turn them down. The on-site NYCHA manager is supposed to conduct an inspection and, if necessary, set up a work order. There is no external record of the problem or its resolution. Despite the aggregate “metrics” the authority releases on its repair record, the details and the process remain interior to NYCHA. The integration of NYCHA into the 311 system was promised as part of the NextGeneration NYCHA plan, but so far we have seen no forward movement.
To assure greater compliance with local laws and housing codes, and greater accountability and transparency on the part of the authority, we recommend that NYCHA be integrated into existing citywide code compliance and enforcement mechanisms that have been established to respond to and protect tenants.
This is a critical period for NYCHA as it attempts to maintain operations under reduced federal funding and address its $17 billion capital backlog. With 177,000 units and a resident population of over half a million, NYCHA is a city in its own right. In the best of times, the authority, a bureaucracy of 11,000 employees, is a hard ship to turn around. It needs a steady hand at the helm. This is no time to be playing musical chairs with its leadership.
Chair Olatoye has proved to be an able leader in setting NYCHA’s course over the next decade in the NextGeneration plan. She has also been responsible for major management reforms: the transition to decentralized on-site housing management, the modernization of management technology, and hard-won negotiations with labor that extended management shift coverage morning to evening. Upon learning of the lapses in lead-based paint compliance, which had been going on for years since the Bloomberg administration, she responded quickly by sounding an alert and focusing authority efforts on coming into compliance.
In our view, Chair Shola Olatoye deserves the chance to continue to lead NYCHA through this crucial period. And we believe many NYCHA resident leaders would agree.