Despite tests showing elevated lead levels at NYCHA, City Council hearing concludes lead not a widespread problem

By LOUIS FLORES

At a New York City Council budget hearing held on Monday, New York City Housing Authority CEO Shola Olatoye confirmed that city health officials had determined the presence of lead in paint and tap water at some NYCHA apartments.

The positive test results were the outcomes of studies that were designed to approximate each of the incidence of lead paint poisoning or the presence of lead in tap water.

Left to right : Brian Clarke, senior vice president for operations ; Shola Olatoye, chief executive officer ; and Karen Caldwell, executive vice president and chief financial officer for the New York City Housing Authority, testifying at Monday's hearing.  Source :  Video Feed from New York City Council/Public Domain

Left to right : Brian Clarke, senior vice president for operations ; Shola Olatoye, chief executive officer ; and Karen Caldwell, executive vice president and chief financial officer for the New York City Housing Authority, testifying at Monday's hearing.  Source :  Video Feed from New York City Council/Public Domain

Regarding the incidence of lead paint poisoning, NYCHA CEO Olatoye identified a health study during the question and answer period of her New York City Council budget testimony on Monday. The study was conducted by a health department, which NYCHA CEO Olatoye did not name. This study reportedly tested children up to age six over a five-year period. Children in this age group are most susceptible to lead poisoning. Exposure to lead can have negative health consequences to organs and bones and lead to developmental problems with the nervous system, amongst other health consequences.

Of the one million children said to be tested in the health department study, approximately 6,800 children tested positive for elevated blood levels of lead. Of that subset, 202 children lived in NYCHA apartment buildings. Of that further subset, upon further testing, NYCHA determined that 18 NYCHA residences presented with elevated lead levels. “Those issues were immediately abated, and those homes are now lead-free,” NYCHA CEO Olatoye testified.

Regarding the incidence of lead in water, NYCHA CEO Olatoye said that the municipal housing authority conducted a random sample study of approximately 175 units. Of those units, tap water was tested “on the first draw,” which meant taking water samples as soon as a faucet was turned on. The first-draw test identified samples from 13 units that tested positive for elevated lead levels. The study also tested separate tap water samples that were collected “on second draw,” which meant taking water samples after the tap water had been allowed to “run a bit.” Of these second-draw samples, test results indicated that just one sample tested positive for elevated lead levels. NYCHA CEO Olatoye testified that NYCHA was working with other government agencies to retest tap water according to other environmental protocols. “It’s very important that our residents have confidence that there are not issues within the housing authority,” NYCHA CEO Olatoye said, in relevant part.

Councilmember Ritchie Torres (D-Fordham) seized on the outcome of the five-year health department study to reach the illogical conclusion that of the 175,000 apartments owned or managed by NYCHA, only 18 tested positive for lead paint, thus allowing him to minimise the problem of lead paint to be something deemed inconsequential, despite the fact that all 175,000 apartments had not been tested. In fact, the health department study was used as proxy to determine those most at-risk for being exposed to lead paint. It is not known how many NYCHA apartments were actually tested as a subset of one million children, who participated in the study.

Requests made by Progress Queens for interviews with NYCHA CEO Olatoye and with the City Hall press office were not answered. Consequently, not much is known about the health department study cited by NYCHA CEO Olatoye during her testimony.

Because of the obviousness of the logical fallacy in reaching the false conclusion that the health department study had tested all of the apartments in NYCHA’s portfolio of housing, advocates for public housing tenants hoped that other government officials would take notice.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-New York), for one, has at times been critical of the management of housing issues by Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City). However, Gov. Cuomo’s press office did not answer a request made by Progress Queens to determine if he had any concerns about the safety of drinking water at NYCHA apartments. It is not known if Gov. Cuomo believes that, until all tap water ha been tested and deemed safe in NYCHA apartments, whether NYCHA residents should be supplied with bottled water, for example.

The concern over the safety of drinking water in New York is coloured by drinking water emergencies in Flint, Michigan, and in Hoosick Falls, New York. Indeed, the controversy about the presence of lead in the drinking water in Flint has erupted into a national conversation about the lack of government response to any indication of elevated levels of lead in drinking water supplies.

NYCHA CEO Olatoye appeared to grasp the dangers of exposure to lead, particularly from lead paint. “Any risk is a concerning risk,” she testified.

It was in that vein of awareness that Progress Queens requested first that NYCHA and then the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the latter which is conducting an investigation into NYCHA, release documents about the possible risks of exposure to lead amongst the over 400 million records that NYCHA has produced to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Each of NYCHA and the U.S. Attorney’s Office have yet to fully answer the request for records made by Progress Queens. Because Progress Queens has argued that there is an urgent need for NYCHA residents to know now whether residents face exposure to lead, it is not yet known whether municipal housing authority officials or Federal prosecutors believe the public have a right to know about their potential exposure to environmental toxins.

When speaking generally of the reported Federal prosecutors’ investigation of the municipal housing authority, NYCHA CEO Olatoye sought to dismiss news reports that the U.S. Attorney’s Office was seeking to determine whether there had been any wrong-doing by municipal housing authority officials, saying that NYCHA was fully coöperating by providing documents in response to what she described as merely being a request for information, adding that there had not been any complaint filed and no formal investigation had been launched. Despite her cool response to the office of corruption-fighting U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara probing the municipal housing authority's operations, NYCHA CEO Olatoye admitted to having produced over 440 million records to what she described was merely a request for information, saying, in relevant part, “I can’t presume to know what the intent of the inquiry is.”

Given the persistent reports of NYCHA’s inability to address physical condition standards at its apartment buildings, some NYCHA residents have begun to react in fear and suspicion whenever there is construction work that creates dust, particularly for tenants with children, who have developed respiratory health complications.

Besides discussing the shortfalls in NYCHA’s operating and capital budgets, New York City Councilmembers raised questions about other funding sources for NYCHA. Councilmember Vanessa Gibson (D-East Concourse) noted that the $100 million that Gov. Cuomo had set aside for NYCHA in the state’s Fiscal Year 2015 budget was insufficient to meet the overwhelming need to make capital repairs or other improvements to NYCHA’s public housing developments. The disbursement of the 2015 state allocation has been split into two phases, and coördinating the allocation between the state agency in charge of those funds and with NYCHA to fully fund specific repairs or improvements has been a challenge. At times, NYCHA CEO Olatoye complained that the state allocation was identifying repairs or improvements that were either not fully funded, were already under way by NYCHA, or where the state’s intended scope was unclear. “One hundred million is great, but it’s not enough to meet the demand of a lot of these developments that really need significant work,” Councilmember Gibson said.

For his part, Councilmember Torres, who chairs the City Council committee on public housing, encouraged NYCHA to be more aggressive about converting public housing into Section 8 apartments, so that the housing authority could try to leverage the real estate for greater outside revenue streams. NYCHA CEO Olatoye reported that the rate of conversion had almost been doubled from Fiscal Year 2015, when the municipal housing authority had converted about 300 units, to Fiscal Year 2016, which the municipal housing authority expects to convert up to 600 units.

The last time when NYCHA tried to monetise a portfolio of Section 8 buildings, serious questions were raised. In 2014, NYCHA sold a portfolio of project-based, Section 8 apartment buildings to a consortium of politically-connected real estate developers with close ties to the de Blasio administration. That sale was transacted with no public input and was not subjected to requirements under the City Charter. Furthermore, the sale did not net NYCHA any new cash. To finance the transaction, NYCHA issued bonds worth $250 million, the proceeds of which were then provided to the consortium in the form of a further loan, with which, in turn, was used by the consortium to buy its interests in the properties from NYCHA. Moreover, a cash-strapped NYCHA was reported to have made capital improvements to some of the buildings prior to the sale, contradicting assertions that NYCHA was too cash-poor to retain ownership of the dilapidated Section 8 buildings. Despite legal questions about the sale transaction, municipal investigative authorities have kept silent for a year.