Beyond New York

By Anugya Chitransh, Pamela Granda, and Gabriella Iannetta

May 13, 2014
New York, NY

Over a decade ago, Chicago took center stage in public housing reform. For years, the system had been plagued with crime, vandalism, rats — and mold. The Chicago Housing Authority's Plan for Transformation, the largest reconstruction of public housing in U.S. history, started with the bold aim of rehabilitating 25,000 units by 2015.

The plan wasn't merely a patch-up effort. According to Joseph Shuldiner, who spearheaded the Plan for Transformation until 1999, at one point, CHA managed over 42,000 units in high-rises. Under the plan, many of the towers were demolished and a concerted effort was launched to renovate remaining units and deal with any mold and excessive moisture issues, along with other systemic problems.

Today, 14 years after the plan began, Chicago is patting itself on the back. The job is not complete, however. Chicago Housing Authority spokesman Matt Aguilar said in an email that the agency has reached 88 percent of the units it planned to renovate and rebuild.

Chicago's housing authority is the third largest in the nation, with 26,333 units. The Housing Authority of New Orleans, established in 1937, ranks seventh with 3,620 units.

Both Chicago and New Orleans — like New York City's public housing system, which is the largest with 180,263 units — have dealt with mold and other poor living conditions. The approaches offer a study in contrasts in management — and circumstances.

Chicago, for example, demolished several high-rise towers and hired private property managers for each new development after it demolished several high-rise towers, under its Plan for Transformation. After Hurricane Katrina made much of New Orleans' public housing uninhabitable, the city launched began a massive building and redevelopment effort, overseen by the federal government. Four of New Orleans' largest housing developments were demolished and rebuilt.

“Chicago Housing Authority and Housing Authority of New Orleans were both taken over, partially or completely and are still coming out of it. There has been some improvement in them over time,” said Roland Anglin, director of the Joseph C. Cornwall Center for Metropolitan Studies at Rutgers University. “But comparing their history to their current management is like comparing apples to oranges. There are always going to be complaints.”

The New York City Housing Authority, the first public housing in the country on a mass scale, was founded in 1934. The origins of NYCHA, however, trace back to the late 19th century, when photojournalist Jacob Riis exposed the horrid living conditions in the city’s slums. Riis' most influential work was an 18-page article that was turned into an 1890 book titled, “How the Other Half Lives.” Today, a public housing complex on the Lower East Side is named after him.

Due in part to Riis's work, the federal government passed legislation to create low-income public housing in the early 1930s. The law spawned NYCHA and the agency's first development, simply called First Houses, were constructed on the Lower East Side in 1935 with 122 units on eight floors. Today NYCHA oversees over 180,000 units.

Eventually, cities like Chicago and New Orleans built their own subsidized housing developments for thousands of low-income families. But issues maintaining these large-scale housing programs cropped up — and still trouble public housing authorities across the nation. Many buildings aren't properly maintained, triggering issues like mold growth.

Presently, federal guidelines about tenants' rights and landlords' responsibilities for treating mold do not exist. On the U.S. Department of Housing of and Urban Development website, there is apageabout mold and moisture education. HUD urges residents to try to prevent mold by fixing leaks immediately, avoid carpeting in rooms like the kitchen and bathroom, and to keep their homes as dry and clean as possible. How local housing authorities tackle mold treatment, however, is left up to each city.

Under a federal court settlement struck in December, NYCHA must now repair and address any issues raised by tenants that involve mold or excessive moisture within seven to 15 days, on average. Changes in how the agency addresses these issues is underway now.

In Chicago, it's a different story. Mold issues, says Chicago's housing authority, were not a documented problem of concern in the past. That does not mean the problem did not exist, of course, but that it has not been documented. Still, Chicago Housing Authority spokesman said that the agency has addressed mold contamination since 2000 and that it has been “several years” since the last request for mold inspection.

Still, Chicago's Plan for Transformation has not been trouble-free.

The demolition of the infamous Cabrini-Green development, in particular, was controversial. When the Plan for Transformation project began, it forced close to 200 families to be relocated in apartment buildings that were considered just as dangerous as Cabrini-Green or to ones located outside of the city.

Some of NYCHA's buildings are even older than those demolished in Chicago or New Orleans.

But, even with mold and other issues, NYCHA remains independently run and has never been taken over by HUD — unlike Chicago's and New Orleans' public housing systems, which have come under federal control at different points. Chicago's housing authority is once again independent while New Orlean's agency remains under HUD supervision.

“NYCHA has a pretty good reputation nationally, I know locally they face some contention with activists and local residents,” said Edward Goetz, co-director of University Metropolitan Consortium at the University of Minnesota. “But they are the best across the country.”

And at least for the forseable future, NYCHA, as it says on its web site, has no plans to ever demolish its buildings or displace any families.

Menaced by Mold is a product of the NYCity News Service at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

Content, Copyright © 2014, CUNY Graduate School of Journalism

Skeleton, Copyright © 2011, Dave Gamache

Skrollr, Copyright © 2014, Alexander Prinzhorn