Mold and Mismanagement at Nycha Continue Despite Funding for Roof Replacement
It starts from the top — a building with a damaged roof is likely to develop secondary problems within the building itself, such as leaks, mold, and holes where pests can come in. But when New York City is your landlord, as well as the landlord of close to half a million people, it is unlikely your work order will be completed. As of September of this year, the New York Housing Authority has 319,750 open work orders.
Despite the backlog of work orders, Nycha has the money to address many of these problems, especially roofing — 3 billion in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding to make repairs related to Hurricane Sandy, and another 1 billion from the Mayor’s Office — and has been able to replace the roofs of 86 buildings citywide since 2017. Brooklyn’s largest public housing facility, Red Hook Houses, has begun work on its 28 roofs, with 63 million in FEMA funding reserved just for roofing.
A May 2015 letter from Mayor de Blasio and Nycha CEO and Chair Shola Olatoye states that their strategy to make the Hurricane Sandy repairs was to prioritize “the worst roofs in the portfolio”.
The company responsible for the roofing at Red Hook East and West is Technico Construction Services Inc., which earned a contract with the city with FEMA funding for 55 million dollars, and was expected to complete the project by November of this year.
Roof work began with the East complex, and is currently wrapping up at the West complex.
“It will not be done in November,” says Lillie Marshall, President of the Tenants Association at Red Hook West. “They just started on the tall buildings.”
A representative from Technico could not be reached for comment about the projected timeline.
But even with the roofs almost completed, some residents say they are still encountering leaks and mold.
“It still ain’t fixed yet,” says Marlyn Jenkins, who has lived at Red Hook Houses for 42 years. “They haven’t upgraded nothing. No electricity, piping, all that.” Even in a drizzle, Jenkins says, leaks “seep through” the roof.
In 2018, a new city law was passed that “requires that owners of buildings with three or more apartments keep their tenants’ apartments free of mold and pests. This includes safely fixing the conditions that cause these problems.” The city itself — New York’s worst landlord — does not adequately treat mold, even though it has the funds to prevent further proliferation.
“They’ve been working on the mold since Sandy,” says Marshall. “It’s gonna take a lot of time and a lot of money.”
In February, a federal monitor was appointed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to investigate Nycha in response to a federal investigation that found numerous health and safety violations and efforts by Nycha to conceal these violations.
The monitor’s report reiterates that “significant root causes of many mold outbreaks and recurrences are leaks caused by pipes, roofs, and porous building exteriors” and that “the great majority of persons interviewed attributed leaks to porous roofs and building exteriors” among other causes.
In response to HUD requirements, a citywide Mold Busters program was implemented in January, and rollout was completed on September 2. The program will train over 2,500 staff members in mold inspection and remediation, and will increase accountability and improve communication between Nycha and Resident Associations.
Unlike other problems that Nycha residents encounter, such as broken elevators or exposed wires, mold has been associated with some health concerns including asthma, because it can release related “toxins and allergens,” according to the federal monitor report. According to the same report, “the rate of asthma hospitalizations for [Nycha] residents aged 20 and above was four times higher than for the rest of New York City,” between 2012 and 2014. But the origin of much of the mold — replacing and repairing the roof — can be prevented at the source.
Some tenants have resorted to removing the mold themselves. But even the physical removal of mold does not guarantee it will stay that way. Mold in Nycha apartments returns “at least 30% of the time,” even with Nycha’s contributions, according to the federal monitor’s report. Even then, when residents scrape mold patches themselves, this can increase the risk of exposing lead that exists under old layers of paint. But when workers come in to address the mold, their safety is also put at risk. According to one tenant complaint filed against Nycha, Nycha does not always alert their workers when they are going to be working with something contaminated with lead paint.
The report specifically criticizes Nycha’s policy for “the relative inexperience of ground-level personnel with techniques to properly address lead paint and mold remediation issues,” as well as lack of accountability, poor electronic record keeping, and inadequate communication in order to better utilize these public resources.
Karen Blondel, a community and environmental activist in Red Hook, recognizes that mismanagement in Nycha is a problem. “There are gray areas where I feel like they’re not talking to us enough about the progress on those things, like the amenities,” says Blondel. “I suspect there’s times when [Nycha and the Sandy Recovery team] ask the resident council president or board and they’re making decisions without talking to the residents.” For example, she says, each subsequent ground floor redesign proposal has included less and less retail space, as a laundromat, 99 cent store, and bank have all disappeared from the neighborhood.
Despite the inefficiencies and mismanagement in Nycha and with the Sandy Recovery and Resilience program, Blondel argues that FEMA funding has been effective in Sandy recovery. “It does make a difference. And it is making a difference for Red Hook Houses. I think that for a lot of people who don’t know a lot about engineering and adaptation may think that it’s been moving slow.”
Marshall, however, expresses her skepticism. “You don’t know, everybody said they’re doing good work, but that’s only talk. Talk is cheap. We’ll see when it’s done if it’s improved,” she says.
Blondel also shares concern for the future of her community. The funding from FEMA and roof repairs, she says, is, “definitely gonna make a difference in the Red Hook Houses being able to sustain itself during continued climate change events.” Other plans for Red Hook resiliency include elevating the campus, subsystem electrical work, and replacing the basement boilers.
Computer-generated designs for the Sandy Recovery plan at Red Hook Houses show a modern, family-friendly complex with energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly materials and surfaces. The plan is projected to finish in 2022, and is being designed by luxury developers Kohn Pedersen Fox and landscape architecture firm OLIN.
Whereas the old roofs were a standard valance roof with layers of tar and insulation, the new ones are sealed with a spray around the edges. Blondel, who is also a former facade inspector, says a good indication as to whether the roofs are holding up is to look at work order tickets for days that were actually raining “to see if the numbers on those cases diminished.”
Fixing the roof will obviously not address all the problems that face Red Hook Houses. “Red Hook was done in 1939, and these buildings are old,” says Lillie Marshall. There are “a thousand things wrong with all of these developments, and it’s gonna take a lot of work, and a lot of time.”