Besieged NYC public housing residents battle the spreading scourge

In New York City's vast, aging public housing system, mold seems to spread as fast as the questions, concerns, confusion and fear the insidious toxin spawns.

In December 2013, the embattled New York City Housing Authority agreed to unprecedented federal judicial oversight as it attempts to rid the nation's largest public housing system of mold.

But it won't be easy to fix a broken system, where, residents and experts say, mold too often is simply painted or plastered over while root causes like broken pipes and leaky roofs largely go unaddressed. Some tenants say they're not sure to whom to complain, while some are afraid to make waves for fear of losing their subsidized homes. Meanwhile, the health impacts of mold remain uncertain, even as an estimated nearly 10 percent of NYCHA tenants — many of them children — suffer from asthma.

Amid this clouded landscape, reporters from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism's NYCity News Service in recent weeks interviewed numerous health and mold experts, along with some 30 residents of the Jacob Riis Houses on the Lower East Side and the Jefferson Houses in East Harlem. They told stories of years of ignored or mishandled complaints, and medical woes. Some residents, however, reported that NYCHA has been more responsive since the December consent decree.

But the mold keeps coming back.

So will our reporters: Menaced by Mold is just the start of a larger digital reporting project in which the NYCity News Service will team with the New York Daily News to track this public housing scourge, which has been compounded by Superstorm Sandy. We'll use various in-person and on-line engagement techniques to chronicle mold infestation — and cleanup efforts — in city housing. The effort is backed by a $35,000 grant as part of the first Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education — a partnership of the Online News Association,theExcellence and Ethics in Journalism Foundation,theRobert R. McCormick Foundation,theJohn S. and James L. Knight Foundation,and theDemocracy Fund.

Meanwhile, residents remain besieged by mold in their bathrooms, kitchens and even their bedrooms. This special report explores the health impact of living in these conditions; why mold is rampant in NYCHA housing and how other cities have handled similar crises.