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The Growing Mold Problem in New York City's Public Housing

The infestation worsened after Hurricane Sandy, and a Brooklyn-based advocacy group is calling for a solution.

Tape covers the windows at a public housing complex on Coney Island after Hurricane Sandy. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

“You can feel mold as soon as you walk into an apartment. It’s almost like the air is heavier,” says Catherine McBride, the community development program manager for the Red Hook Initiative in Brooklyn.

Since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, residents of the Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn—one of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) developments most affected by the storm—have lived with worsening mold conditions in their apartments, and have received inadequate help from NYCHA. In response to a persistent community call for action, the Red Hook Initiative (RHI), a local youth development organization, conducted a survey of mold conditions in the local public housing complex. The results were released in a report this week.

RHI surveyed residents of 280 units between March and April of this year. Nintey-four percent have experienced mold or leaks in their unit at some point; 40 percent of residents are currently dealing with mold in their apartments. (Before the hurricane, that number hovered around 34 percent, the report notes.) “Sometimes you can see the black mold spores covering the walls like paint; sometimes it’s concentrated under the site of a leak,“ says McBride. The growing problem has implications on residents’ health: Over half of the respondents described mold-related illnesses such as asthma, particularly in children. Sustained exposure to mold, the report notes, exacerbates health concerns: 24 percent of public-housing residents in Red Hook are asthmatic, as opposed to 8 percent in the rest of of the 11231 zip code.

Flooding in Red Hook, Brooklyn in the aftermath of Sandy. (Keith Bedford/Reuters)

Mold affects all 328 NYCHA complexes across the five boroughs, and it’s an issue that has raised concerns for years. (Another city agency fields maintenance requests from non-NYCHA units; mold complaints comprised just 2.7 percent of these tickets, according to a 2014 report from the Office of the Comptroller.) In 2013, a tenant’s advocacy group made up of the South Bronx Churches, Manhattan Together, and individual residents filed a class-action suit against NYCHA, calling for the housing authority to take a more proactive approach to combating mold, and establish a timeline for responding to residents’ concerns. NYCHA agreed to a settlement in December of that year. Under the terms of Baez v. NYCHA, residents are entitled to simple repairs completed within seven days, complex repairs addressed within 15 days, and follow-up from NYCHA to determine the efficacy of repairs within 60 days.

But in 2015, the attorneys for the tenant’s group took NYCHA back to court for noncompliance with the terms of the case. Over the course of 2014 and 2015, the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism’s NYCity News Service  partnered with the New York Daily News to chronicle the effects of the housing authority’s inadequate response. Their reporting uncovered stories of slapdash cover-up jobs that failed to address the root cause of mold, of families being transferred from one moldy apartment to another, and of NYCHA failing to respond to requests at all. In the RHI survey, less than 16 percent of residents received "relief from mold after NYCHA cleaned and painted mold-affected areas."  

In 2015, the court appointed an official to oversee NYCHA’s compliance, but organizers at the Red Hook Initiative are calling for a more concrete approach to the issue.

Mold around a pipe in a Red Hook apartment. (Catherine McBride/Red Hook Initiative)

NYCHA is currently facing around $17 billion in unmet capital needs for repairs and building maintenance, a spokesperson tells CityLab. The housing authority recently released a Next Generation plan outlining efforts to combat mold, but the RHI report notes that the plan leaves out a cost estimate and a precise timeline for implementing these changes. In communicating with NYCHA about its survey of Red Hook residents, RHI has requested that the housing authority calculate the cost for mold remediation, using the Red Hook Houses—the second-largest NYCHA complex—as a pilot. “We just don’t have an idea of what kind of budget we will need,” says Jill Eisenhard, the founder of RHI. “We have to be able to say what we need done and how much it will cost before we can move onto the next level of conversation—implementing a solution.”

The problem, Eisenhard says, is that mold in public housing intersects a handful of city agencies that have not previously been brought together to combat this issue. “It’s not as simple as fixing a broken door,” Eisenhard says. Mold falls under the purview of NYCHA, but it’s also a public health issue, she adds. Eisenhard hopes that securing a cost estimate for thorough mold remediation will allow RHI to approach other city agencies, like the Office of the Comptroller and the New York City Health Department, to contribute resources.

While the Red Hook Houses are slated to receive $438 million in funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), McBride says the money can only used for repairs directly tied to Sandy. Because mold was present in the apartment complexes before the storm, Red Hook will have to rely on other funding sources to directly tackle remediation.

Speaking with the residents of Red Hook Houses over the past year, McBride heard variations on the same story. Some residents told McBride that they’ve lived with mold for over a decade. “People are fatigued,” she says. “The Red Hook buildings are old, and need a lot of costly work. I think organizations sometimes back away from discussing problems like this because we’re afraid of what that number might be, but we need to talk about this.” The housing authority has been receptive to working with RHI’s recommendations, Eisenhard says, though she acknowledges that it will be the beginning of a long process.

But what’s driving the effort, McBride says, “is our belief that what residents deserve is possible. People should not have to live in an apartment covered in mold.”

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