Facing Suit, City Agrees to Remove Mold in Public Housing More Quickly

Source: The New York Times, December 17, 2013
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The New York City Housing Authority will deal more quickly and more thoroughly with mold in its apartments as part of an agreement by the Bloomberg administration to settle a federal lawsuit by people living in housing projects and coping with asthma.
Lawyers for the residents accused the agency of violating the Americans With Disabilities Act by allowing mold to persist, exacerbating the respiratory ailments of residents. Since Hurricane Sandy, mold has become more common in public housing. But even before the storm, tenants had long complained that maintenance workers failed to identify the leaks and other sources of moisture that cause the mold. Instead, the workers clean off walls and ceilings and repaint, and the mold often returns.
Since notifying the city of their intent to file a class-action suit, lawyers for the tenants have been negotiating a settlement. The agreement is expected to be filed in federal court in Manhattan on Tuesday, shortly after the lawsuit is filed. The settlement will require the authority not only to remove the mold but also to fix leaks, insulate pipes and address other sources of moisture. The agency will be required, in most cases, to fix the problem within seven to 15 days following a work order.
The agreement covers all of the more 400,000 tenants in public housing. But it requires housing officials to recognize asthma as a disability and to make accommodations for tenants with the condition. For example, the authority could be expected to relocate a person with asthma and his or her family to another apartment, or to use low-toxicity fungicides or to allow extra air-conditioning units in apartments.
The lawsuit spurring the changes was brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice on behalf of public housing tenants and two nonprofit groups, Manhattan Together and South Bronx Churches.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, an influential environmental group, has supported many of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s green initiatives, but says the mold problem disproportionally affects low-income communities and is an important social justice issue. The group argued that the housing agency’s failure to remove mold in apartments sickened people with asthma, in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which calls for accommodations for the disabled.
Last December, in anticipation of the lawsuit, the plaintiffs’ lawyers formally asked the Housing Authority ”for reasonable accommodations and modifications” and entered into settlement discussions with administration officials earlier this year.
The Housing Authority does not keep numbers on tenants diagnosed with asthma, but lawyers for the residents estimate the number is ”in the thousands” given the location of many projects in areas of the city with high asthma rates, such as Harlem and the South Bronx. Many asthma sufferers are children and their parents often restrict their movement through the apartment to keep them out of rooms with mold. At least one health study has found that children in New York City public housing have higher odds of having asthma than do children living in all types of private housing.
Housing officials concede the incidence of mold rose after Hurricane Sandy but said they have made dealing with it a priority. The agency has been struggling with a backlog of repair orders, but earlier this month said that it was reducing both the total number of open work orders and the time it takes to respond to work requested by residents.
On average, it said, response times for repair requests like mildew and extermination are now less than two weeks. But the settlement may add to the cost of the repair program by requiring that a supervisor respond to mold complaints to inspect conditions before workers are sent in.
And given the aging stock and widespread disrepair of public housing, it is uncertain how long-lasting any remediation work will be in cases where the buildings need major capital improvements, such as a roof replacement.
The settlement includes monitoring provisions, including regular status reports to the plaintiffs’ attorneys and periodic samplings of mold complaints by housing officials to determine if work orders are completed in the required time.

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