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Judge Orders Lead Inspections in Public Housing

NEW YORK — A Manhattan judge hearing a lawsuit by public-housing tenants ordered the New York City Housing Authority on Tuesday to conduct lead inspections in thousands of apartments where young children live.

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Judge Orders Lead Inspections in Public Housing
, New York Times

NEW YORK — A Manhattan judge hearing a lawsuit by public-housing tenants ordered the New York City Housing Authority on Tuesday to conduct lead inspections in thousands of apartments where young children live.

The preliminary injunction by the judge, Carol R. Edmead of state Supreme Court, marked the latest victory for tenant leaders who sued the authority after revelations in November that the agency had not conducted all the lead paint inspections mandated by federal and local law.

After the lapses became public, in a report by the city’s Department of Investigation, the housing authority acknowledged that it had falsely certified lead paint paperwork with the federal government from 2013 to 2016.

NYCHA, as the housing authority is known, has about 176,000 units. In issuing the injunction, Edmead said the agency must identify the thousands of apartments that required annual lead inspections from 2013 to 2016 and inspect them within 90 days.

Her order comes about a week after the resignation of the agency’s embattled chairwoman, Shola Olatoye. Olatoye had come under scrutiny for her handling of lead paint inspections and for the failure of aged boilers that left thousands of residents without heat this winter.

The housing authority will contest the record at a hearing next week, Jasmine Blake, a spokeswoman for the agency, said.

Before her ruling from the bench, Edmead questioned NYCHA’s ability to carry out the inspections without a court order.

“There is a whole credibility issue if we should leave this to NYCHA or a NYCHA-selected contractor,” she said.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio defended the mayor’s role in the lead paint inspections.

“This administration did not start these problems, but we’re the one that’s fixing them,” Olivia Lapeyrolerie, the spokeswoman, said. “We restarted inspections in 2016 and they are now happening every single year.”

During the hearing, Edmead said she believed NYCHA’s inspection failures likely constituted an irreparable harm to children, and she questioned the agency’s competency to remediate the harm.

“We can’t redo the past,” said one of NYCHA’s attorneys, Nancy Harnett, adding that the housing authority began taking corrective measures last year.

Since October 2017, a contractor hired by the agency has inspected almost all of the 8,900 apartments where children younger than 6 reside, in compliance with local law, NYCHA lawyers said.

The tenants’ lawyers, however, argued that those inspections overlooked apartments with children that are now older than 6, but that were younger when the agency skirted inspection laws from 2013 to 2016.

“If you don’t learn from the past, you are forever condemned to relive mistakes,” Jim Walden, a lawyer for the tenants, said in a rebuttal to Harnett.

Walden said that there are “tens of thousands of apartments” that needed to be inspected where children aged out during the four-year period. Lead in paint chips or dust from peeling paint can cause serious health and developmental problems, particularly in young children.

The judge’s support marked another step forward for the city’s 400,000 public-housing residents, who have mobilized effectively in recent months and drawn the attention of politicians to address the city’s crumbling public housing conditions. Earlier this month, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo declared a state of emergency at NYCHA and ordered an independent monitor to oversee repairs after touring housing developments and taking jabs at the agency’s management under de Blasio’s watch. Last month, Cynthia Nixon, Cuomo’s rival in the Democratic primary for governor, visited a housing development in Brooklyn and called the conditions there “devastating.”

Under the judge’s order, the independent monitor would oversee the remediation of any lead paint found at NYCHA apartments, said Walden, the tenants’ lawyer. The independent monitor must be chosen unanimously in the next six weeks by the mayor; Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker; and Danny Barber, the president of the Citywide Council of Presidents, the group of tenant leaders that sued the agency.

“We want to thank the residents of public housing for their voices and for crying out for assistance,” Barber said after the hearing.

Late Monday, NYCHA suffered another, unrelated setback, this time from a Manhattan federal judge, regarding a 2013 lawsuit related to mold infestations. The agency had agreed earlier this month to appoint a tenant ombudsman to oversee mold repairs. But the judge, William H. Pauley III, halted the “slapdash” agreement, saying it was “reached in haste.” He ordered the agency and the tenants who brought the suit to confer again and come up with a new plan. Tuesday’s lead paint decision also came about a month after the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development told the city’s housing authority that it would no longer be able to draw federal funds without approval, placing the authority on a so-called “zero threshold.” The city has been negotiating with federal prosecutors for months but has yet to reach a settlement related to the false paperwork the agency filed to the federal government.

“This system is broken and it needs to be fixed,” Walden said after the hearing.

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