New NYCHA FOIL data reveals more about lead, mold, asbestos -- and how often maintenance requests are CLOSED

More is known about issues that undermine the physical condition standards at NYCHA, but questions still remain about why City officials countenance problems at NYCHA.

  • The Second FOIL Response reveals a 20-fold increase in lead-related maintenance requests over information provided in the First FOIL Response.

  • Public housing tenants must deal with an administration that downplays the physical condition standards of public housing at the same time token gifts, like free movie tickets, are given to pacify tenants.

  • It has been widely reported that NYCHA simply "closes out" maintenance requests made by public housing tenants. Now, the public has the data to see how often that occurs.

By LOUIS FLORES

Updated 18 October 2016 16:20 ⎪ New data provided by New York City's public housing authority to Progress Queens showed that over 84% of maintenance work were simply marked as "Close" or "Closed," with no indication as to whether the underlying issues that triggered complaints by public housing tenants were ever fully addressed.

Findings in the data -- which also included reviews conducted for lead, mold, mildew, and asbestos -- were the product of analyses conducted by Progress Queens of a second response made by the New York City Housing Authority, or NYCHA, to a request filed by Progress Queens under the State's Freedom of Information Law. This Second FOIL Response took the form of over 400 GB of electronic files that appeared to be data dumps of database records. After the new data files were processed, in part, by data scientists, over 47 million rows of records became available for review for this report.

For years, it has been reported that NYCHA has been unable to fulfill requests for apartment maintenance lodged by its tenants.

At one point under the administration of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R-New York City), NYCHA faced a backlog of over 400,0000 maintenance requests. In 2013, the Bloomberg administration faced criticism for actions taken by NYCHA to summarily close outstanding maintenance requests in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, according to a report filed by the journalist Greg Smith for The New York Daily News.

A 2015 audit by the office of Comptroller Scott Stringer (D-New York City) revealed that the Bloomberg administration practice of closing-out maintenance requests has continued under the de Blasio administration, according to a report filed by the journalist Mireya Navarro for The New York Times.

The data provided by NYCHA provides deeper insight into metrics and statistics about how well -- or how poorly -- the public housing authority has been able to manage its portfolio of apartment buildings.

The exact motivation behind using "Close" or "Closed" was not explained by NYCHA officials. Multiple requests made by Progress Queens to interview NYCHA officials were never answered.

For example, it is not known if using a "Close" or "Closed" status in NYCHA's electronic records is a way for Municipal public housing officials to avoid accountability for serious questions about toxins or hazards public housing tenants are forced to accept in their apartments, such as lead or mold.

With many news reports documenting how NYCHA's tenants have been given short shrift, including reports published by Progress Queens, the response from public officials has almost been to allow NYCHA to fend for itself.

Elected officials seemed to openly acknowledge that NYCHA simply does not have the money to make needed repairs to its public housing apartment buildings. The neoliberal political response from the New York City Council has been to force NYCHA to sell stakes in its portfolio of public housing apartment buildings to private sector investors or developers in order to raise money. When privatization has not proven to raise money fast enough, City officials have been content to allow NYCHA to go to Albany with a symbolic tin cup in its hand.

In 2015, NYCHA was allocated $100 million from the New York State budget. Given the propensities of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-New York) to undermine the governance of Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City), that this amount was ever allocated represented a win for NYCHA.

Those monies were initially intended to pay for capital repairs needed at NYCHA's public housing apartments ; however, approximately 40% of the funds were redirected to improving security, according to a report published by Progress Queens.

NYCHA's underfunded capital improvement needs have been estimated to reach as high as $17 billion. Yet, no sound financial plan has been set forth by the de Blasio administration to improve NYCHA's finances. A significant cost-savings target within the larger plan for a financial turnaround named Next Generation NYCHA unveiled by Mayor de Balsio in 2015 turned out to be "baloney," according to a report published by The New York Daily News. The cost-savings target had to be scaled back by an estimated $200 million, dealing a significant blow to NYCHA's finances.

Although Mayor de Blasio campaigned for office on a central promise to address the disparity between the Haves and the Have Nots, Mayor de Blasio has for unknown reasons not materially improved the living condictions of NYCHA's tenants. Budgetary efforts, ranging from a piecemeal effort, like suspending fees that NYCHA had to pay to receive police services, to the bonanza of a $3 billion Hurricane Sandy grant, have not been enough to provide the public housing authority with the resources it has needed to uniformly make the necessary repairs to its apartments. Instead, Mayor de Blasio's financial turnaround plan principally rested on selling or leasing City real property owned by NYCHA to real estate developers to develop a revenue stream that would eventually trickle down to fund NYCHA's budget deficits.

Also influencing NYCHA's lack of funding has been reductions in Government spending approved by President Barack Obama and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro.

Against the backdrop of NYCHA summarily closing maintenance requests have been legal efforts to force NYCHA to accept responsibility for remediating mold from its apartment buildings.

NYCHA's failure to maintain its public housing apartments have become the reported subject of a Federal investigation

Progress Queens has reported that, as a condition of the funding received by NYCHA, the City must certify to the Federal Government that the housing authority meets physical condition standards, as required by law. Since NYCHA has lacked the financial resources to make capital repairs to its large portfolio of public housing and Section 8 apartment buildings, Federal prosecutors are reportedly investigating whether City housing authority officials falsely certified that NYCHA has been in compliance with Federal physical condition standard requirements. Federal prosecutors are additionally reportedly investigating whether NYCHA disclosed the exposure to lead and the risk of exposure to lead. Although the lead-related aspect of the investigation is reported to involve the presence of lead in paint, Progress Queens has raised concerns about the presence of lead in water -- not just at NYCHA's public housing apartment buildings, but City-wide.

In the face of NYCHA's de facto insolvency and the initiation of the reported Federal investigation, the response by Municipal officials has largely been muted on the issue of tenants' exposure to toxic substances.

When the U.S. Attorney's Office was investigating reports of Constitutional rights violations of inmates at Rikers Island, for example, the de Blasio administration waited until after Federal prosecutors issued a report of their findings before the City outsourced the proposal of reforms to the McKinsey consulting firm.

Even after the existence of the reported Federal investigation of NYCHA became public, City officials sought to downplay the risk of exposure to lead to tenants, even in drinking water, for example.

Whereas City officials have largely avoided the serious issues facing NYCHA's tenants, City officials have celebrated the issuance of free movie tickets to NYCHA tenants and the painting of murals on the red brick exteriors of NYCHA's public housing apartment buildings.

These token efforts made by public officials to pacify NYCHA's tenants have ignored human's fundamental need for adequate shelter and for the human right to housing that public housing was created to uphold.

To NYCHA's tenants, the mendacity of public officials is in full, plain view.

Requests made by Progress Queens to interview attorneys with the firm of Hogan Lovells and with the nonprofit environmental advocacy group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, were not answered. These attorneys represent a class of NYCHA tenants in a pending Federal lawsuit demanding mold remediation. Nonetheless, Progress Queens interviewed some individual NYCHA tenants for this report.

Nestor Arroyo, a tenant of the Red Hook East Houses in Brooklyn, said he faulted Mayor de Blasio for not living up to his 2013 campaign promises to combat economic inequality.

"He hasn't done shit," Mr. Arroyo said, referring to Mayor de Blasio's record on improving NYCHA, adding that, "He only takes care of Manhattan. Brooklyn is always last."

Data reviewed by Progress Queens has confirmed that Brooklyn was the location for the most lead-related maintenance requests of any borough, and Red Hook East Houses was the site for the most lead-related maintenance requests of any public housing apartment complex in Brooklyn.

When asked about his experiences with NYCHA's record on maintenance, Mr. Arroyo said that he believed that NYCHA inspected tenants apartments, like for forbidden appliances like washing machines and dryers, but that kind of proactivity did not extend to dealing with building maintenance. Mr. Arroyo described dealing with windows with broken springs and problems with asbestos.

Another Red Hook East Houses tenant, Fred Cancel, said he believed that City officials are let off the hook for being responsible for NYCHA, because City officials know that NYCHA's tenants don't have the resources to be better organized.

"They know if you don't have a lawyer to fight this, nothings going to change," Mr. Cancel said.

Attempts to ask some tenants about their experiences with NYCHA's record on building maintenance were complicated by a range of circumstances. On a day when a reporter visited the Red Hook East Houses, several tenants leaders were at work and not at home. Older adults were dining on lunch at a senior citizen center. A pair of tenants at one building were waiting for their Access-A-Ride, a transportation service that is provided to people with disabilities.

Tenants' primary needs took precedence over charts and information being carried around by a reporter to demonstrate metrics about NYCHA's record on building maintenance. For example, Mr. Cancel noted that it was not uncommon for tenants at Red Hook East Houses to be without heat and hot water on the week-ends. Talk of immediate needs that could be physically felt and sensed trumped unseen dangers, like the possible presence of lead in paint or in water.

The pair of tenants waiting for Access-A-Ride faced a medical emergency when the male of the two collapsed coming down exterior steps of one public housing building. His companion, who was trying to hold the man up, fell on top of him when he became too heavy for her to hold him up. A reporter organizing notes from a prior interview temporarily attended to the man before another tenant dialed 9-1-1 for medical assistance and other tenants arrived to attend to the man. Tenants dealing with a medical emergency became a metaphor for how NYCHA-wide problems take a backseat to other immediacies.

The vacuum of Municipal leadership when it comes to the living conditions at NYCHA comes at a time when City Councilmembers have been criticized for a failure of leadership on other issues. For example, City Councilmembers have ignored calls from community leaders demanding rent regulations and other protections for small business, which are being forced to close due to upwardly spiraling commercial rents. If entrepreneurs have been unable to grab the attention of Municipal legislators, then public housing tenants were going to have an even more difficult time inspiring action from City Councilmembers.

For a series of articles published by Progress Queens about NYCHA, including this report, requests to interview Councilmember Ritchie Torres (D-Fordham) have not been answered. Councilmember Torres is chair of the City Council committee on public housing.

Whereas the reported Federal investigation into the physical conditions standards at NYCHA are expected to address issues, like compelling the removal of lead paint, the outcome of the expected Federal investigation may not address the indifference of City officials to the conditions facing NYCHA's tenants. Requests made by Progress Queens to the City Hall press office have not been answered.

Multiple requests made to the U.S. Attorney's Office for interviews with the Assistant U.S. Attorney's leading the reported investigation were declined.

The aversion by City officials to the truth about the living conditions at public housing ignores data that NYCHA itself has possessed, which it has provided to Progress Queens, and which Progress Queens has made public or is in the process of making public. However incomplete the data may appear at times, the data from NYCHA's maintenance logs provide a starting point for City officials to take action on issues that can be reasonably expected to be at the hart of the report that is forthcoming from Federal prosecutors. Yet, no official action has been apparent.

In the past, Progress Queens has published a report indicating that one possible political motivation to keep NYCHA underfunded would be to facilitate the privatization of public housing.

The computations of lead-, mold-, mildew-, and asbestos-related records were performed by reading NYCHA's FOIL data files using the Pandas library from the Python programming language. It should be noted that not all records for environmental toxins or hazards prove the existence or presence of the toxins or hazards. NYCHA's records are summaries of work orders ; underlying documentation for the work orders were not provided by NYCHA. Without the benefit of interviews with NYCHA or City Hall officials, it is not known how City housing officials view the frequency with which NYCHA has acknowledged toxins or hazards in its maintenance logs.

Data in the Second FOIL Response revealed a 20-fold increase in lead-related maintenance requests over information provided in the First FOIL Response

Lead

The First FOIL Response. When Progress Queens reviewed data provided by NYCHA in its First FOIL Response, the frequency with which maintenance records were identified to be lead-related was extremely low. Only 1,209 requests out of 1,483,617 service requests were expressly described to be lead-related. The file that served as the basis for the review of the First FOIL Response included work orders beginning at the end of 2009 through near the end of 2015.

One of the apartment buildings making up the NYCHA public housing complex known as Red Hook East Houses in Brooklyn. Data provided by NYCHA in its Second FOIL Response and analyzed by Progress Queens identified the Red Hook East Houses as the site of the highest number of lead complaints. A report published by The New York Daily News identified Red Hook East Houses as the site of the most apartments containing lead paint. Source : Louis Flores/Progress Queens

One of the apartment buildings making up the NYCHA public housing complex known as Red Hook East Houses in Brooklyn. Data provided by NYCHA in its Second FOIL Response and analyzed by Progress Queens identified the Red Hook East Houses as the site of the highest number of lead complaints. A report published by The New York Daily News identified Red Hook East Houses as the site of the most apartments containing lead paint. Source : Louis Flores/Progress Queens

In its prior report, Progress Queens noted that there was glaring discrepancy between the maintenance requests that were labeled to be lead-related and the number of public housing apartments that NYCHA has acknowledged to contain lead paint, for example. Because the maintenance records produced in the First FOIL response did not reflect all of the known lead-related risk, it can be deduced that NYCHA may use another system to track known lead-related issues that may not be subject to a pending maintenance request.

When NYCHA produced its Second FOIL Request, it did so in two groups of data files. The first group was labeled as Maximo extracts, and the second group was labeled as Siebel extracts. A general overview describing the processing of the data has been published by Progress Queens.

Maximo. For purposes of this report, the review of data was limited to the Maximo extract labeled "workorder.TXT." That file was identified by NYCHA to contain over 33.7 million rows of data. Each row of data represents one work order for a corresponding maintenance request. After the file was processed following a methodology established, in part, by a data scientist for reading, over 33.5 million rows of data from that extract formed the basis of the review of the Maximo data. For example, in order for the Maximo data to be processed for review, many rows that corruptly used commas within text fields had to be removed by Progress Queens, and approximately one third of the fields, which were unused or little-used, had to be forsaken in order to shrink the size of the work order extract file.

After these procedures were carried out to make the data manageable, a search for "Lead" or "lead" in the Description field of the work order extract only turned up 13 records. Because NYCHA did not provide a key to decipher its cryptic column names, it is not known if there was a key to use to determine if any of the other rows in the work order extract described lead-related maintenance issues.

Siebel. A search for lead in the work order extract identified 24,369 maintenance records, representing an increase of 20 times the number of lead-related maintenance requests identified in NYCHA's First FOIL Response. The work order extract for Siebel data included records from 2010 through 2015.

Because NYCHA has declined a series of requests for interviews, it is not known why NYCHA would produce for its First FOIL Response files that would represent an incomplete picture of its maintenance requests, particularly since meta data shown in the files that comprised the Second FOIL Response indicated that the extract files were already in existence at the time when NYCHA made its First FOIL Response.

After Progress Queens received the First FOIL Response, a series of articles were published, providing an overview of information about the First FOIL Response. Based on the information gathered from that initial analysis, Progress Queens predicted that the information contained in the First FOIL Response was incomplete, based on the distribution of data that appeared to be skewed. Progress Queens also predicted that NYCHA had to have more than one system to manage its records about maintenance issues, because information about how it tracked the historical presence of lead in paint used in apartments would not necessarily be collected in a database about new maintenance requests made by tenants.

Mold and mildew

The First FOIL Response. In total, 6,326 records of mold-related service requests and 139,281 records of mildew-related service requests were discovered on the main .CSV file that was provided by NYCHA in its First FOIL Response. These figures were previously reported by Progress Queens.

Maximo. A search for "Mold," "mold", "Mildew", or "mildew" in the Description field of the work order extract turned up 227 records. As with the lead-related service requests, because NYCHA did not provide a key to decipher its cryptic column names, it is not known if there were codes or shorthand used in the work order extract to describe mold- and mildew-related maintenance issues.

Siebel. A search for mold-related records showed 7,003 maintenance requests, and a search for mildew-related records showed 156,914 maintenance requests. The increases observed in mold- and mildew-related maintenance requests from the First FOIL Response to the Second FOIL Response can be traced to information contained in the Seibel extracts that was not readily available in the processed work order Maximo extract. Graphs of the distribution of Siebel mold- and mildew-related maintenance requests by borough revealed increases that relatively followed patterns established by the data in the First FOIL Response.

Asbestos

First FOIL Response. Progress Queens did not publish a report about asbestos-related issues from data provided in the First FOIL Response. A search of the main .CSV file used for other reviews showed only 18 asbestos-related maintenance requests.

Maximo. Progress Queens previously published a report reviewing asbestos-specific report provided by NYCHA as part of its Second FOIL Response. That prior report was based on a specific Maximo extract file dedicated solely to asbestos-related records.

Siebel. A search for asbestos-related records turned up 14,630 maintenance requests. For the review of Siebel data, Progress Queens compared five groups of asbestos-related Descriptions that appeared to correspond with each other : for ceilings, floors, pipes, walls, and other. For each of the five groups, there was a category of Descriptions for asbestos testing, for needing asbestos testing, and for asbestos abatement. A snapshot of the Siebel records shows did not show a pattern or correlation between the categories within the groupings. Further analysis would be required to determine any relationship between work orders that may have been opened under requiring testing that may have eventually graduated to testing or abatement.

A further note about the quality of the data in NYCHA's Second FOIL Response

In conducting this review, Progress Queens attempted to double-check the quality of its calculations. For example, when searches were conducted of the work order numbers for lead records amongst the Maximo data against the work order numbers for lead records in the Siebel data, not all of the Maximo work order numbers were found. One possible explanation for that discrepancy could be the fact that some of the rows of data in the Siebel file were corrupted by use of extra commas that prevented the straight import of all of the Siebel data for data analysis purposes. However, the real cause of this discrepancy cannot be explained, since the corrupted rows of data were not reviewed for this report. It was also observed that there existed data in the First FOIL Response that contained some records for work orders opened in 2009. There were no records for 2009 work orders, for example, in the Siebel extracts. The Siebel extracts also included additional categories for the location of work orders that were not used for work orders in the First FOIL Response. Some of the new locations in the Siebel extracts appeared to be free-form input describing the location of work orders, and this free form input lacked the disciplinary use of categories that were used in the First FOIL Response.

The .CSV file from the First FOIL Response that was reviewed by Progress Queens contained 1,483,617 rows of records summarizing maintenance requests. Of those rows, 1,442,013, or 97%, contained unique work order numbers. The concatenation of the processed Siebel .TXT files that was reviewed by Progress Queens contained 13,830,385 rows of records summarizing maintenance requests. Of those rows, 13,618,312, or 98%, contained unique work order numbers. Therefore, NYCHA produced different sets of data between the First FOIL Response and the Second FOIL Response. As a consequence of the slight existence of some duplicate records (between 2% to 3% of the total records), the gross calculations made for this report may reflect some duplicate records.

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