“From a moral sense, this was unbelievable,” says NRDC senior attorney and director of environmental justice Albert Huang, who learned about these conditions in 2011. “You had families who were working hard to pay their rent. All they wanted was to be able to close their doors and be safe in their apartments.”
Manhattan Together, an interfaith community organization, came to NRDC for help. After decades of fighting with the New York City Housing Authority, or NYCHA, the organizers needed help nailing down a litigation strategy that would force NYCHA to improve these deplorable conditions. The complete list of neglected grievances was long, but mold and moisture was the most common and significant health hazard. “We weren’t just talking about mildew on shower curtains,” Huang says. “We were talking about moss growing up the wall.”
Tenants filed complaints with landlords, and some even had judges rule in their favor in housing court cases, but the problem persisted. “One case at a time, a judge would say, ‘Yes, this is a violation of your lease because your apartment is uninhabitable,’ and NYCHA would be ordered to fix it,” says Huang.
But if NYCHA actually did send someone to “fix” it, sometimes months or even a year after the court order, the focus would often be on the cosmetic issue and not the underlying root cause. After visiting and documenting the conditions in hundreds of units over the course of two years, Huang’s team learned that the real problems were beyond the help of bleach and paint: leaking roofs, broken or uninsulated pipes, lack of windows or functioning fans in the bathroom.
The consequences of this neglected moisture were far-reaching. Along with spurring mold growth, wet and rotted walls and dripping pipes attracted cockroaches and rats. That influx of vermin caused public-housing tenants, who are already suffering from asthma at dramatically higher rates than other New Yorkers, to experience increased coughing, wheezing, and even hospitalization.
“With climate change, we’re going to see this problem explode,” says Huang. A 2011 report by the National Academy of Sciences stated that as more floods and hurricanes cause water to seep into indoor spaces, the residual fungi and bacteria may cause building materials to decay or corrode, leading to troubling levels of chemical emissions and increased respiratory problems.
“We had to figure out how we could force NYCHA to address this underlying moisture problem before it got any worse,” Huang says. “Were there existing laws that could protect someone with asthma from these kinds of conditions?”
Luckily, the answer was yes. The Americans with Disabilities Act, which most people associate with the blind, deaf, and wheelchair-bound, was amended in 2008 to include protection for those who have an impairment of any major life function, including breathing. “If you have asthma and your building management knows it and is not addressing your air-quality issues, they are violating your civil rights,” Huang says.
In December 2013, NRDC and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court on behalf of these asthma-suffering residents, as well as Manhattan Together and South Bronx Churches, another community organization that advocates for the rights of public-housing tenants.
“A settlement came in the 11th hour of Mayor Bloomberg’s administration,” Huang remembers. “Politically, I think he saw it as beneficial because his legacy was vulnerable." Incoming Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign slogan was “The Tale of Two Cities,” which criticized the huge discrepancies in quality of life between New York's wealthy and low-income populations. “Plus it aligned with his focus on public health and the environment,” Huang says.
The agreement contained three parts. First, NYCHA admitted that underlying moisture—not just mold—was the real problem, thus the agency can no longer resort to purely cosmetic fixes. “We were able to demonstrate how much more expensive it is to paint a wall a million times instead of having a plumber fix the problem permanently,” Huang says.
Second, the city agreed to a specific timeline for response to mold and moisture complaints. If it’s a simple repair that can be fixed in one or two visits, NYCHA has seven days. More complex issues have to be taken care of within 15 days. These response times must be met 95 percent of the time for at least three years, and after 60 days, a supervisor is required to check back in with the tenant to make sure the repair has held.
And last, but certainly not least, NYCHA recognized that asthma is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. All documents for tenants—leases, handbooks—will inform residents that they may be entitled to accommodations such as expedited repairs, the right to install an additional air conditioner, and even transfer or permanently relocate to another apartment if the situation makes their current unit uninhabitable.
Because NYCHA is the largest public-housing authority in the country, these rules protect 400,000 New York City residents—more than the entire population of Cleveland.
“In the beginning, some people asked, ‘What is NRDC doing working on this issue?’” Huang says. “But most understood how it fit into our mission. We’ve established that people have a federal civil right to breathe. That’s exciting when you think about how it can impact the other work we do.”