New York

City Council’s Whitewash


When City Council Speaker Peter Vallone sent a flier to 800,000 voters across the five boroughs last week, he was obviously trying to pique their interest. The cover of his threefold pamphlet, simply entitled Children’s Report, contains only these words: “Our children deserve . . .” Readers are left to wonder what Speaker (and mayoral hopeful) Vallone thinks New York’s youngsters merit. Given Vallone’s record on two recent housing issues that affect kids— especially those who are poor— the possibilities are frightening.

In March, Vallone’s council passed a bill requiring sprinklers for fire protection, but made it apply only to newly constructed buildings with four or more units and buildings that are undergoing substantial renovation. That means the city’s best-protected children are those whose parents can afford to live in new or renovated apartments. Citing complaints from the real estate industry that retrofitting buildings with sprinklers would be too expensive, the council didn’t even consider that option. It also ignored more affordable but significant protections, like requiring self-closing fire doors and hiring more inspectors to guarantee buildings meet fire codes.

More egregious, in June, Vallone forced a diluted lead-paint protection bill onto the city’s law books, taking his cue from the landlord lobby. Under the law, landlords have more time to remove lead paint and can work under relaxed rules. And families of lead-poisoned children are limited in how much money they can win in court. Those and other provisions were bitterly contested by physicians who treat lead-paint poisoned children as well as by a network of lead-paint safety advocates.

A bruising and highly publicized battle ensued, and while Vallone’s version prevailed, the speaker emerged sullied by news accounts and columns. So it is surprising that Vallone’s flier not only mentions the lead bill but actually boasts of his achievement in reducing the effects of lead-paint poisoning. “Speaker Vallone and the City Council have allocated $2 million to increase existing efforts for lead testing, prevention, and education,” the flier reads. “In addition, funds will be used for the development of several safe houses for lead-poisoned children and their families who are temporarily displaced during lead abatement of their homes.”

To Megan Charlop, director of the lead poisoning prevention project at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, the boast is shameful. “It’s like passing out cigarettes to kids and then building cancer treatment facilities,” says Charlop. “It seems to me that the money was a bribe to get people to vote for a very bad bill, to sweeten the bitter pot. The name of the game here should be prevention, not treatment afterward.”

Vallone has defended the bill, saying it “will go a long way toward protecting our children.” And in a letter circulated to councilmembers on the day of the vote, he noted that despite intense lobbying by lawyers, landlords, and city government itself “this body will not bow to their pressure nor yield to their influence.” Ironically, Vallone staffers crafted the bill in daylong meetings with landlord lobbyists.

Vallone’s Children’s Report is one of three mailings the speaker sent citywide, as is his custom each year after the budget is resolved. The $2 million he mentions in the report reflects money budgeted for the city’s Department of Health (DOH) before the bill was passed; in addition, Vallone and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani have agreed to use another $3 million to pay for DOH staff in neighborhoods hard-hit by lead-paint poisoning, for mobile outreach vans, and for 10 safe houses with an estimated 30 to 50 units.

Building safe houses will likely be the biggest expense. Charlop, who helped create the city’s first safe house, says the need for them became apparent in the 1980s when children who had been treated for lead poisoning at Montefiore could not be sent home because they would be recontaminated. “We’d have kids languishing for weeks on a hospital floor for no medical reason except that their own homes were not safe for them, or they’d go to foster care or homeless shelters,” says Charlop. Montefiore’s six-unit safe house is the largest of
only three safe houses in the city.

“Do I think we could use a few more safe houses in New York City?” asks Charlop. “Yes. But is this offering the best effort? No. The city should be making sure the apartments where children live are safe, but that’s antithetical to what has happened. Vallone has been so disingenuous, it makes you want to puke.”

Also stomach-turning was the administration’s maneuvering to cram the lead bill onto the council’s agenda, claiming it had to meet a complicated July 1 deadline imposed by state supreme court judge Louis York, who is overseeing a 15-year-old lawsuit against the city over lead-paint laws. All along, the plaintiffs told city lawyers they would accept an extension of the deadline to accommodate fuller debate on the lead bill, but corporation counsel refused. One day
after the bill was signed, however, the city asked York for an extension of some provisions, and York was amenable. The deadline has been pushed to September 1.

The lead bill bodes poorly for another tenant issue coming before the council, says Michael McKee, associate director of the New York State Tenants & Neighbors Coalition (NYSTNC). In March 2000, the council must vote on rent regulations and has wide berth to alter them in ways that could help or harm tenants.

“I’m very worried,” says McKee. “The lead bill has two lessons: first, Peter Vallone’s allegiance is, without question, to the real
estate industry. And second, if he puts his mind to doing a [rent] decontrol bill, he will get his votes one way or the other.

“But what’s also relevant is a looming mayoral election. Vallone will have to understand that he can’t get elected as the candidate of the landlords, and that’s what he is. I think he has made a serious political mistake with the lead bill.”

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