A Leaky System


By Rosa Goldensohn, Pamela Granda, Jennifer Lehman, Rachael Levy, and Rikki Reyna

May 13, 2014
New York, NY

The ordeal started 10 years ago with a leaky bathroom sink. Soon black mold crept into the shower, up the walls and across the white ceiling — percolating, sprawling and creating miniature craters and dunes that looked like the surface of the moon.

Carmen Vazquez and her two children, who live in an apartment in the Jacob Riis Houses on the Lower East Side, came face-to-face with this spreading mold every morning when they woke up and every night before heading to bed.

Vazquez called the New York City Housing Authority for help with their apartment in the Jacob Riis Houses on the Lower East Side, only to be told appointments could take up to a year. Finally, seven years after she first reported the problem, NYCHA showed up to repair the leak causing the mold in her apartment.

NYCHA might have never turned up at all if another upstairs neighbor hadn’t also reported mold. But as it turns out, the neighbor had a similar problem, and shared the same leaky pipes behind the walls. So when NYCHA showed up to fix the upstairs neighbor’s pipes, the workers took care of Vazquez's leaky pipes too.

But, Vasquez said, the NYCHA workers didn’t do anything about the mold itself.

“It was still there,” Vazquez said. “They just fixed up the leak.”

Vazquez tried cleaning the bathroom with Clorox. The mold remained. Three years passed. Last month, NYCHA finally retiled Vazquez's bathroom. For now, the mold is gone.

“I used to feel so bad having my bathroom like this. You want to have your bathroom clean,” Vazquez said. “I thank God that this year, it has been fixed.”

Vazquez is one of the lucky ones — if battling mold for a decade can be called lucky. Her struggle with mold may be over for now, but for hundreds of other NYCHA residents the mold menace — and the respiratory problems that may come from prolonged exposure to it — persists.

Over the last decade, the Daily News and the New York Times have reported on many such cases — bathrooms and kitchens infested with mold that won't go away, families suffering from allergies and asthma, made worse by the fungus, and apartments patched up by NYCHA workers only to have mold reappear weeks later.

In December 2013, the city agreed to federal judicial oversight of mold removal after a group of asthma sufferers who lived with mold in their NYCHA apartments filed a lawsuit. Under a consent decree, NYCHA must address mold problems needing repairs within a specific time frame, and then, follow up to make sure repairs were done correctly. Simple repairs that can be done in a single visit must be taken care of within seven days, more complex ones, requiring a plumber or roofer, within 15 days, on average.

The court settlement also stipulates that in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, people with asthma living with mold must be afforded accommodations like re-location, additional air conditioners or fans, dust collection during repairs and non-toxic cleaning supplies for use in mold removal.

“Now, under a court order as a result of this case, NYCHA has to respond to complaints and they have to respond appropriately,” said Marc Cohan, the director of litigation at the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, one of the legal organizations representing the tenants.

It seems that NYCHA is starting to make good on at least some of the mold complaints. Recent interviews with at least 30 residents in the Jefferson Houses in East Harlem and the Jacob Riis Houses on the Lower East Side indicated that NYCHA workers have knocked on many doors recently and started asking tenants about mold issues.

NYCHA, in an email, however, denied that it is conducting any special sweeps for mold in either of the housing developments. “If residents are being visited, they likely have open mold work orders, or staff is looking for leaks causing someone else's mold/leak issue,” a NYCHA spokesman wrote.

Posters also have been placed around the Jacob Riis Houses and other developments providing information about the settlement. Some community groups are even organizing asthma information and screening clinics, like one held in early April just a few blocks away from Jacob Riis.

Meanwhile,NYCHA's websiteprovides limited information about how to handle mold. The site suggests keeping windows open for ventilation, calling NYCHA as soon as possible about leaky pipes, and urges tenants to clean mold with a soapy solution, among other recommendations.

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When it rains, it pours....inside
By Jacob Passy

Credit: Ashley Rodriguez

Diana Torres, 31, sat in her bedroom, strewn with towels. “Mom, it's starting to rain,” her 13-year-old son said. Without pausing, Torres ran up the steps to the roof of her building at the Jefferson Houses to cover a rain collection pipe with a plastic bag. Whenever it rains, she says, water seeps through the ceiling and walls in her top-floor apartment because of broken pipes on the roof, causing a constant mold problem. Despite over 200 visits from NYCHA workers over the past nine years, the only fix her apartment has received, she says, is some paint and plaster on the walls. Meanwhile, her family deals with the constant flooding.

But interviews with at least a dozen experts who deal with mold suggest the recommendations published on NYCHA's website don't go far enough. Simply washing off mold won't get rid of it permanently. It may not be as visible for a while, but if the source of the moisture that is causing the mold is not repaired, the fungus will return. Often, that means walls need to be torn down and leaky pipes must be fixed.

NYCHA acknowledges this too, although indirectly. In email responses to a series of questions, the agency seems to partly blame the residents for the problem in some cases. “Mold grows in places where there is too much moisture. NYCHA has recently intensified its efforts to train staff to better identify the sources of moisture responsible for mold. These sources can be leaks, inadequate ventilation or moisture build-up resulting from resident activities and inadequate ventilation,” wrote a NYCHA representative in an email. “For example, cleaning the mold may fully eliminate the mold, but if the behaviors that produced the mold (e.g. residents hanging clothes on clothes lines in warm damp apartments) continues, the mold can come back.”

It remains to be seen how the court settlement might systematically change NYCHA's response to mold in its developments across the city. NYCHAsaysa total of 95,428 general maintenance and repair work orders remained open as of early March. Mold-related repairs are not separated out. That number is down by more than 300,000 orders from the beginning of 2013, when NYCHA began implementing a backlog-clearingplan. That program, formulated under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, set to eliminate the backlog in repair requests by the end of 2013, but failed to meet its goal.

The lawsuit against NYCHA aimed to force the agency to deal with mold more directly after years of what many residents charge is neglect.

Inspect the Mold Yourself

Mouse over image to zoom in.

Credit: Oresti Tsonopoulos

“They weren't doing repairs,” said Cohan, who filed the case along with the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy non-profit. “They either weren't showing up at all, or for example, they might come and paint over the mold, but they wouldn't get at the cause of the mold.”

“Having them record the complaint was relatively easy,” Cohan added. “Having them do anything after the complaint was where the difficulty arose.”

Cohan suspects NYCHA couldn't or wouldn't make repairs for a variety of reasons, including poor management, a lack of resources and inadequate training.

Changes in training and additional training are part of the settlement. NYCHA, in an email, said it is educating workers on mold identification, health impacts and root causes. Supervisors at each development will now be charged with assessing and identifying mold. NYCHA said its supervisors are being trained through Rutgers University, and that the final round of training should wrap up in June.

Even with a noticeable pick up in NYCHA attention to mold, problems are still prevalent. Many residents in the Jacob Riis and Jefferson housing developments report that when NYCHA responds to a tenant's repair request, the agency first sends a NYCHA-employed maintenance worker, who might not have expertise in dealing with mold, to try to resolve the issue. That is what happened in the case if Ana and Jose Acevedo.

The couple and their four children have been living with a recurring mold problem in their bathroom for about a decade in the Jacob Riis Houses on the Lower East Side. A NYCHA inspector arrived two days after their most recent request to remedy the problem, the couple said. It wasn't mold, she told them — just dirty caulking. The inspector closed the bathroom door as she began to scrape the old caulking, blackened from mold, off of the bathroom window. For the safety of the worker and his family, Jose Acevedo asked her to stop, saying that mold was clearly visible and a simple patch-up job wouldn't do. He filled out the repair ticket and said he would wait for someone to return to remove — not just cover — the mold, he said.

Many residents in the Jacob Riis and Jefferson Houses have also said that NYCHA employees have come into their apartments to inspect the mold and ended up painting or re-plastering the walls, only to have the mold come back weeks later.

Even though NYCHA is reporting that it is working on clearing up the backlog of general maintenance complaints, theDaily Newsfound last year that the housing was simply closing tickets without doing needed repairs.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was public advocate at the time, pointed out the impossibility of NYCHA completing thousands of repairs each day, around the clock, in order to get through the 200,000 tickets they claimed were closed in less than six months.

As mayor, de Blasio noted the increased rate of repairs at NYCHA housing within the first 100 days of his tenure. But areport by NY1in April said that when repairs require skilled laborers, tenants wait two and half times longer than the average 50 days claimed by the administration.

As part of the December legal settlement, NYCHA must follow up with tenants to make sure the repairs have been completed adequately. How that will happen — and when — is still undetermined.

“The defendant's next step is to try and comply,” Cohan said. “Our next step is to wait for the monitoring to determine whether they have.”

Mold that won't go away
By Camilo Gomez

For two years now, mold has been growing on Ramona Gonzalez's bathroom ceiling above the shower and on one of the bathroom walls. Gonzalez, 48, who has lived with her 18 year-old son in a Jefferson Houses apartment for the past six years, called NYCHA several times. After each call, someone would come and inspect. Finally, in early April, a worker showed up with a bucket of paint. “It came back all the same,” says Gonzalez; a month later, the ceiling and wall looked just like they did before the paint job.