For years, residents of New York City’s troubled public housing system have dealt with a host of issues that ranged from inconvenient to deadly. Peeling lead paint, rampant mold, no heat in the winter, broken elevators, and infestations of pests created indecent, unsafe and unsanitary conditions.
That’s about to change, according to U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman of the Southern District of New York. A settlement agreement between the New York City Housing Authority and federal prosecutors is set to see $4 billion in fusion of local, state and federal funds in the coming years, to be overseen by a federally installed monitor empowered to make long-term, substantive changes.
“The old ways of doing business at NYCHA are over,” Berman said.
The consent decree unveiled by the Manhattan federal prosecutor’s office Monday resolved a two-year investigation launched during former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara to look into health and safety concerns, as well as the possibility NYCHA officials misled federal Housing and Urban Development monitors over lead cleanup.
The scope of the investigation’s findings, as admitted to by NYCHA as part of the consent decree, are expansive.
From at least as far back as 2010, during the administration of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, NYCHA officials showed a pattern and practice of misleading HUD officials about the housing agency’s compliance with federal lead paint safety regulations. In fact, lead was confirmed on the premises of a full half of NYCHA’s 326 developments, while at least 92 developments saw inspectors find the presence of lead in actual apartments.
NYCHA officials continually certified the authority was in compliance, despite not performing required biennial risk assessment evaluations of housing developments known to have lead paint, nor were authorities doing visual assessments of apartments for lead hazards, including, before 2016, apartments with children under the age of six. Even when lead paint improvements were taken, NYCHA failed to ensure staff members were taking the right safety measures. Less than a third of maintenance workers assigned to houses known to contain lead paint are trained in lead-safe work practices.
Between 2010 and 2016, at least 19 children living in NYCHA facilities were found to have developed lead poisoning after being exposed to lead paint, according to federal official. However, those 19 cases surely understate the true extent of lead poisoning of children in NYCHA housing, the government stated in its court filings, as hundreds of additional cases of elevated lead levels among children in NYCHA facilities have been flagged by city health officials.
An as-of-yet unnamed monitor, to be appointed by the federal government, will be set to oversee the sweeping reforms that go beyond the lead paint issue. The settlement also identified NYCHA’s failure to adequately mitigate mold problems, as well as provide adequate heat to residents, keep elevators properly functioning, and deal adequately with pest infestations.
Berman called the announcement Monday “the beginning of the end of this nightmare for NYCHA residents.”
The source of that nightmare remained a point of departure between federal and state officials, even in the face of NYCHA’s ownership of its failings.
In a statement released just ahead of Berman’s press conference, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio cast the problem as beginning with “decades of divestment” in public housing by both state and federal officials, as wells as “decades of neglect” at the hands of predecessors in City Hall, all of which has “pushed our public housing system to the brink.” At a later press conference, de Blasio traced the issues back to the election of Ronald Reagan as U.S. president in 1980.
“I didn’t run for mayor to continue that history. I ran to help turn it around,” de Blasio said.
During his press conference, Berman put the responsibility for NYCHA’s mess squarely at the feet of the authority itself and, by extension, the local elected officials responsible for its management.
“These problems exist, these conditions exist, not because of any loss of federal funding, but because NYCHA was a dysfunctional operation, and is fundamentally flawed, and engaged in a culture of false statements and concealment,” the U.S. attorney said.
What both Berman and de Blasio both acknowledged was the city long-term commitment as part of the consent decree. At least initially, the city will see considerable capital funding flow into NYCHA from outside the city as well.
According to Berman, $4 billion is set to greet the monitor over the next four years. This includes $1.2 billion in budgeted city funds that are now locked in as part of the agreement, with an additional $1 billion in dedicated city capital funding over the same timeframe. HUD will continue to contribute $1.2 billion in capital funds, while New York state has promised $550 million in additional funding. The city has also agreed to continually fund NYCHA’s capital budget to the tune of $336 million through 2027.
As part of the agreement, the U.S. attorney’s office retained the right to possibly bring criminal actions going forward. Berman declined to comment on whether criminal charges would be forthcoming.
Monday’s action was only the latest legal settlement reached by NYCHA. In April, a private lawsuit against the housing authority over mold issues saw a Manhattan federal court appoint a new ombudsman as part of a separate consent decree.