NEW YORK (December 17, 2013) – The New York City Housing Authority will take majors steps to address the city’s severe and pervasive mold and moisture problem in its public housing stock, thanks to a settlement agreement reached today in a class action lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice on behalf of affected tenants. This is especially good news for residents with asthma, particularly children and the elderly, whose health has been suffering as a result of mold in their apartments.
“Your home should be a safe haven from the outside world—yet, for years, some of these tenants have been able to breathe better outdoors than in their own apartments,” said NRDC senior attorney Albert Huang. “The city’s low-income residents should not have to sacrifice the health of their children or themselves while struggling to keep a roof over their heads. With the city’s mold problem projected to increase as we face more frequent extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy, the changes set forth today are urgently needed and a welcome sigh of relief for New Yorkers in public housing.”
NRDC and NCLEJ filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of residents of New York City public housing who have asthma and excessive mold and moisture in their apartments that exacerbate their symptoms, as well as two nonprofit faith- and community-based organizations—Manhattan Together and South Bronx Churches––that advocate for the rights of public housing tenants. The settlement agreement was filed at the same time, and will apply to all public housing residents in the city.
For many in public housing, excessive moisture in their homes has led to recurring and uncontrolled mold and mildew growth, wet and rotted walls, foul musty odors, bubbling and peeling paint, air toxins, and increases in cockroaches and other vermin, all of which aggravate the tenants’ asthma. Consequences include difficulty breathing, coughing, wheezing, and, in the worst cases, hospitalization. As a result, tenants often miss work or school, and require additional doctor and hospital visits.
The agreement makes significant changes to how the city views and responds to mold and moisture problems, as well as how it treats residents with asthma. Specifically:
- For first time, NYCHA is acknowledging that water is the root cause of mold. As a result, it will be required to address the problem at its source, rather than relying on the insufficient cosmetic fixes it has used in the past (i.e. painting and bleaching over moldy walls).
- For the first time, NYCHA will be required to respond to mold and moisture complaints within a specific, reasonable timeline. The simplest of repairs will be required to be completed in seven days and more complex repairs in 15 days. They will be required to meet these response times 95% of the time for at least three years. Additionally, after 60 days a supervisor will have to check in and make sure the repair worked.
- Also for the first time, NYCHA is recognizing that indoor mold and moisture are a health threat to residents with asthma, acknowledging that they are entitled to civil rights protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In addition to these changes in NYCHA’s operations, the mayor’s office has agreed to start a pilot project with electronic moisture detectors. These devices will help locate the source of moisture in an apartment in order to better address it from the start, rather than eyeballing it, as NYCHA has done in the past.
Below is a sampling of affected residents whom NRDC and NCLEJ are representing. Inspections for all of their apartments revealed unacceptable levels of mold and moisture, and NYCHA has consistently failed to eliminate the source of the problem:
- Maribel Baez is 43 years old, has asthma, and lives in the Melrose building in the South Bronx. For at least the past six years, water has been seeping through the bathroom ceiling in Ms. Baez’s home and causing water damage and mold growth in her bathroom. Her bathroom has had visible mold growth and wet walls from floor to ceiling. Maribel has missed several days of work because of her asthma. “This agreement is long in coming. Because of the mold in my apartment, I have more trouble breathing at home than I do outside,” said Baez. “Home should be a place where you are safe, not a place that hurts you. My hope is that with these groups, our lawyers, and a federal court all keeping NYCHA and the city accountable, conditions for me and my fellow tenants will begin to improve.”
- Rosana De La Cuadra lives in the Van Dyke building in East New York, Brooklyn, with her six-year-old daughter, Amanda Santos, who has asthma. There is a history of recurrent water damage and mold growth conditions in their bathroom. Heavy levels of mold grew on the bathroom ceiling, walls and at the base of the bathtub. There is moisture on their bathroom ceiling and large parts of the walls, as well as on a wall in Amanda’s bedroom. Amanda has missed several days of school because of her asthma, and has been hospitalized numerous times, including on New Year’s Eve last year. “This settlement amounts to a fundamental change in the culture of NYCHA’s policies and practices as they relate to addressing the chronic and health-threatening conditions created by mold and moisture in thousands of NYCHA apartments like ours,” said De La Cuadra. “It also means that NYCHA will commit to be held accountable to a high standard of completion and professionalism in its response to all repair complaints. It means my daughter, who suffers from serious asthma, may finally be able to breathe easier.”
- Sixty-one-year-old Felipa Cruz has asthma and lives in the Webster building in the South Bronx. For many years, water has entered into the apartment through the walls and ceilings of her living room, kitchen and hallway. Water had steadily dripped from a hole in the hallway ceiling into a garbage pail. She has missed several days of work because of her asthma. “We have been fighting to get mold and moisture removed not only from our apartments, but those of our neighbors and everyone throughout the city,” said Cruz. “This settlement should help us make real progress in that area, and we are going to continue to work on improving all the other aspects of life in NYCHA.”
Some residents have spent many years trying to get NYCHA to fix the problems. At best, they have received only belated and superficial responses, such as washing and painting over affected areas many months later. This temporarily masks the issue, but does nothing to address the underlying problems, such as leaks, lack of ventilation, and un-insulated pipes. As a result, visible manifestations of moisture and mold typically return within a few months.
“Imagine putting your child to bed knowing that the moldy air she breathes makes her asthma grow worse by the day,” said Jenny Pelaez, attorney with the National Center for Law and Economic Justice. “Or watching your elderly parent, sitting in a living room with mold on the walls, struggle to finish a sentence without coughing. Now imagine not having the means to get your family out of those conditions. This is what many of the city’s tenants have been forced to endure. Living in public housing should not mean resigning your family to hazards that threaten their well-being. In a great city like New York, there is no reason that people with disabilities should be housed in conditions that prevent them from enjoying a healthy life.”
Asthma and other serious respiratory conditions are epidemic in NYCHA buildings, especially among children, and low-income communities as a whole have dramatically higher asthma rates than others in the city.
In fact, one study found that asthma prevalence among children living in New York City public housing is nearly two times higher than rates among kids living in other types of housing in the city. Children living in low-income neighborhoods in the city are also three times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than children in wealthier neighborhoods.
Part of the reason is increased indoor mold and moisture problems. Unfortunately, mold problems are expected to persist and worsen, particularly in low-income communities, as the region experiences more frequent and intense storms due to climate change.
More than 400,000 New Yorkers live in public housing administered by NYCHA, making it the largest public housing authority in North America. Residents are mostly people of color, with limited means. Some spend their entire lives in public housing. Many have no other housing choices.