Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
A bill introduced to New York’s City Council would compel landlords to eradicate mold, vermin, and other asthma triggers that are particularly pervasive in low-rent units.
Mold has been growing in Fabian Bravo’s apartment in the Sunset Park area of Brooklyn for years. Because his landlord has failed to fix the problem, Bravo has repeatedly notified New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which puts pressure on landlords to make repairs and issues violations if they don’t. Bravo has even gone to Housing Court over the issue.
But the mold has yet to be resolved. “The landlord just has someone put a layer of paint on top of it,” Bravo says. “This doesn’t get to the root of the problem, which is that pipes are leaking throughout the building and need replacing. The mold comes back three months after it’s painted over.”
Such a situation would upset any tenant, but for Bravo and his wife, it’s detrimental to their children’s health. Their daughter Samantha, 12, suffers from asthma, and their son Nathan, 6, has recently also been diagnosed with the lung disease. Symptoms include wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath, and an acute attack can even result in death.
Dr. Acklema Mohammad, a pediatrician in the Bronx, treats a lot of young patients who suffer from asthma. She says that indoor asthma “triggers” that exacerbate symptoms and bring on attacks, such as mold, cockroaches, and rodents, are often found in buildings in lower-income areas. (As we reported last fall, a survey conducted in 2016 in the Red Hook Houses, an affordable housing complex battered by Hurricane Sandy, found that 40 percent of tenants were combating persistent mold problems.) Mohammad says she educates her patients about these triggers, but many simply aren’t able to remedy them. “If a landlord isn’t getting to the root of what’s causing the trigger, there’s nothing the patient can do,” she says.
The Coalition for Asthma-Free Housing, a group of over 20 city organizations, reports that while around 1 in 11 children in the United States have asthma, in some low-income areas of New York City, the figure is much higher: 1 in 4. New York City Health Department data also shows that asthma is the leading cause of school absences in city schools and the most common reason for city hospitalizations.
Bravo’s experience illustrates that while the city has a structure in place that facilitates tenant complaints and issues violations, penalties and timelines are too lenient. Landlords can drag their feet on repairs with stopgap measures such as painting over mold and briefly spraying pesticides—measures they use again when the complaint is repeated. In the meantime, years pass, and residents like Samantha and Nathan suffer. (Some landlords also neglect repairs to drive tenants out and then rent the vacated apartment for more money. Though Bravo would like to move, the family doesn’t have the resources to do so.)
The Coalition for Asthma-Free Housing worked with City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez to submit a bill dubbed the Asthma-Free Housing Act, which would compel landlords to take care of an issue like Bravo’s thoroughly and quickly. The bill was introduced three years ago, and support for it has grown over time: Currently 48 out of 51 council members support it. A City Council hearing last week focused on the act, which now awaits a vote.
The act would establish a new protocol for addressing indoor allergens in privately-owned apartment buildings. Christine Appah, a senior staff attorney at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and a member of the coalition, says that the act would insist on a holistic approach to inspections and treatment of pests and other asthma triggers. Inspectors would be trained to look for the underlying causes of mold and other issues, and treatment would involve such actions as replacing pipes and sealing gaps in walls, entrances, and exits to ensure that pests cannot enter easily.
Clear timelines and measures of accountability would ensure that the work actually gets done. Appah notes that after pest or mold treatment, the landlord would have to supply an affidavit to the city proving the repairs were completed. If a landlord fails to do the work, the city would be authorized to do emergency repairs, for which it would charge the landlord.
“These are equity issues,” says Appah. “The act would empower people who are disproportionately affected by these problems—people living in lower-income neighborhoods, minorities, and immigrants.” Daniel Carpenter-Gold, a legal fellow who works with Appah, adds, “These are services that people living in higher-income areas and buildings would expect as a matter of courtesy, or would have the resources to purchase. The bill would help close that income and race gap.”
Appah says that she knows of no other city that has proposed similar legislation. “New York is progressive on this issue,” she says. “If the bill passes, it can perhaps serve as a model for other U.S. cities.”