National News

Housing Authority, Accused of Endangering Residents, Agrees to Oversight

Posted June 11, 2018 9:49 p.m. EDT
Updated June 11, 2018 9:54 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — The federal government on Monday delivered a withering rebuke of New York City’s housing authority, accusing officials of systematic misconduct, indifference and outright lies in the management of the nation’s oldest and largest stock of public housing.

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan said the authority, which houses at least 400,000 poor and working-class residents, covered up its actions, training its staff on how to mislead federal inspectors and presenting false reports to the government and to the public about its compliance with lead-paint regulations. The failures endangered tenants and workers for years, the prosecutors said, and potentially left more children than previously known poisoned by lead paint in their apartments.

The accusations were contained in an 80-page civil complaint filed against the authority Monday in federal court by the office of Geoffrey S. Berman, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, after a lengthy investigation.

The problems at the authority “reflect management dysfunction and organizational failure,” the prosecutors said, “including a culture where spin is often rewarded and accountability often does not exist.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the public housing authority, known as NYCHA, chose to settle rather than face a trial, a decision the city and housing experts said appeared to mark a nadir in a decadeslong history of disinvestment in New York City’s public housing, once seen as the rare national success story.

While cities like Chicago and St. Louis dynamited some of their most troubled projects, New York City held on. In some of the most rapidly gentrifying corners of the city, public housing apartments were islands of affordability.

But their chronic problems — from lead paint to unreliable heat in the winter — were also increasingly apparent, and thrust the agency’s deteriorating buildings into plain view. Politicians like Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a former federal housing secretary, and Scott M. Stringer, the city’s comptroller, toured developments and very publicly lamented the poor conditions, including mold, roach infestations and labyrinthine rat burrows.

In signing an accompanying consent decree that is effective for a minimum of five years, NYCHA admitted to the conduct, and as part of a broad settlement, the city agreed to spend an additional $1 billion on the authority over the next four years, and $200 million per year after that.

NYCHA will also submit to oversight by a court-appointed monitor, and at a news conference Monday, Berman called the settlement “the beginning of the end of this nightmare.”

“These violations will no longer be tolerated,” he said, adding that the deception at NYCHA “ends today.”

At the Bronx River Houses, long plagued by lead paint, residents said NYCHA’s history of letting them down shaded their view of the federal intervention.

Trinese Cropper, 51, said she has experienced water damage, falling plaster and windows that could not close in the Bronx River Houses, in Soundview. “I don’t think things are going to change and get better even if there is oversight,” said Cropper, a contractor, as she sat at a stone table outside. “Who’s going to oversee the overseers?”

Jose Pimentel, 45, who has lived in the Bronx River Houses for five years with his wife and daughter, was more optimistic. “Whatever works,” Pimentel said. “Let’s see what happens.”

The federal complaint traces a pattern of NYCHA falsely telling federal regulators that lead-paint inspections had been done when they had not been since at least 2010, during the administration of Michael Bloomberg, earlier than previously acknowledged by the city.

Indeed, the deterioration of NYCHA’s properties stretches back decades, but de Blasio and the U.S. attorney took different views of the roots of the failures documented in the complaint.

In a written statement released after the complaint was filed, de Blasio began with a reference to “decades of divestment by the federal and state governments and decades of neglect by New York City government” that had pushed NYCHA “to the brink.”

But at his news conference a short time later, Berman challenged the view that disinvestment was at the root of failures raised in the complaint.

The problems existed, Berman said, “not because of any loss in federal funding, but because NYCHA was a dysfunctional operation and is fundamentally flawed and engaged in a culture of false statements and concealment.”

De Blasio, who appeared at a separate news conference in City Hall two hours later, said he was “disgusted” and “angry as all hell” at housing authority workers and managers who deceived inspectors.

But, in contrast to Berman, he presented the settlement as if it were a much needed new program for the public housing residents.

“It will be my sacred mission to fix the reality of public housing,” the mayor said. The authority is chartered by the state and funded mostly through federal grants and rent receipts. The mayor chooses its leadership and largely directs its strategy.

Since 2001, the authority has seen federal funding cuts of about $2.7 billion, the authority has said. The agency’s capital needs were most recently estimated at about $17 billion, though a new, higher estimate is expected in the coming weeks.

Berman said that along with the city’s agreement to spend an additional $1 billion as part of the deal over the next four years, existing commitments to NYCHA from the city, state and federal governments would bring the total to $4 billion over that four-year period.

De Blasio said he welcomed the federal oversight. “We believe that the city’s history with federal monitors has been a positive one,” he said, adding that he hoped the deal — which must be approved by a judge — would also spur a renewed federal interest in public housing.

Cuomo, the mayor’s frequent antagonist, said the appointment of a federal monitor made his plan to appoint a state monitor unnecessary. But, he said, speaking to reporters, “To the extent the city acknowledges their role in this scandal, and has agreed to pay billions of dollars, that is just amazing to me.” He added, “I’ve never seen a city be penalized this way before.”

In 2016 it became known that prosecutors were investigating environmental, health and safety conditions in the city’s public housing as well as possible false claims submitted by the city to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The complaint released Monday showed how expansive the federal investigation was. It built a case that NYCHA had failed in its most basic mission, to provide “decent, safe and sanitary” housing, and that officials had actively sought to conceal the problems from outsiders.

The complaint does not name Shola Olatoye, the former NYCHA chairwoman who recently resigned amid public scrutiny over her handling of the lead-paint issue, or other NYCHA officials.

The complaint said the consequences of the lead-paint failures were real: “Children have been harmed” by NYCHA’s failure to adequately inspect for or correct lead-paint hazards. It noted that between 2010 and 2016, at least 19 lead-poisoned children were found to have been exposed to deteriorated lead paint in their NYCHA apartments.

But, prosecutors said, those cases were likely an understatement, given the inadequate inspections of apartments and large numbers of children who may have been exposed and never tested. “There is every reason to believe the true number of children with lead poisoning is materially higher,” the government said.

A lead-poisoning expert agreed. Although New York City has strict testing requirements, and lead-poisoning cases have been dropping for decades, many lead-poisoned children still go undetected, said Dr. Philip Landrigan, a professor of preventive medicine and pediatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

“I would say there are indeed more children, but not a vast number,” Landrigan said. Elsewhere, the complaint laid out the kinds of maintenance failures that posed risks to residents and the efforts that public housing workers and managers undertook to conceal them and improve federal inspection scores.

Workers in some developments would shut off a building’s water supply before an inspector arrived “to temporarily stop ongoing leaks that would otherwise be visible,” the complaint said. They would turn the water back on after the inspector left.

Other problems were literally covered up. Staff members would “build false walls out of a single layer of plywood to conceal dilapidated rooms” from inspectors, the complaint said.

So ingrained was the approach that for more than a decade, NYCHA gave staff members a “list of ‘Quick Fix Tips’ that served as a how-to manual for misleading inspectors,” the complaint noted.

One tip, for example, said that if damaged or stained ceiling tiles needed to be replaced, painted cardboard could be used instead.

The “Quick Fix Tips” remained on NYCHA’s intranet as reference material for the staff, and was only removed last year after the U.S. attorney’s office questioned senior NYCHA executives about the document, the complaint said.

The scores NYCHA has received from HUD inspections have been generally passable if not always stellar, making the authority a “standard performer,” the complaint noted.

But it said those numbers were not reliable because the authority had “systematically deceived HUD’s inspectors by concealing the true condition of NYCHA housing.”