The absurdly long wait time for basic repairs has seemed to become just another unfortunate but standard inconvenience of living in public housing. Leaking ceilings, broken door locks, dead light sockets: A resident calls to report something in need of fixing and winds up facing a yearlong wait. The maintenance backlog has reached as high as 350,000.
Not enough materials and workers to speed things up, New York City Housing Authority has said. Though there have been lawsuits filed and news articles written, a solution seemed, at best, far off, or perhaps just unfeasible in this time of budgets cuts and deep needs throughout the public sector. In a city where demand for public housing units far exceeds supply, the 400,000 or so residents across the five boroughs can do little more than live with the damage and wait — placing a bucket under a drip, buying a hot plate to replace a busted stove.
On Tuesday, thousands of those residents got some power. NYCHA and lawyers representing public housing tenants agreed to a settlement that required the housing authority to respond to mold complaints within 15 days. A federal court will oversee the terms for up to three years. But perhaps most importantly, NYCHA must recognize that tenants with asthma qualify for protections under the Americans with Disabilities Acts, meaning housing officials have a legal obligation to ensure that those residents do not live in a moldy apartment.
This is quite a wide scope. According to a 2009 study by the city’s Department of Health, nearly a quarter of children living in the city’s public housing system suffer from asthma — around 10 percent higher than the asthma rate among all NYC children.
The two sides filed the agreement in federal court in Manhattan less than two hours after attorneys for the tenants filed a lawsuit against the housing authority. The suit charged the city agency with violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by allowing residents with asthma to live with mold, which worsened the symptoms of their condition.
The tenants’ legal representation — a team of lawyers from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice — had negotiated possible settlement terms with the city since June.
As part of the agreement, NYCHA recognizes that mold is a significant health threat and establishes mold removal as its top maintenance priority. After removing the mold, and fixing the broken pipe or whatever else caused it, within 15 days, housing workers must return in 60 days for a follow-up inspection to make sure the mold is still gone and the pipe is still fixed.
While the court oversight is set to last 30 to 36 months, the protection under the disability law is effectively permanent, offering the thousands of households a clear legal resource to address mold problems.
“For the first time, residents have leverage if NYCHA neglects their legitimate issues,” Frank Skelly, a priest with South Bronx Churches who was affiliated with the lawsuit, said in a statement. “And tenants with asthma, who have suffered for decades as NYCHA has painted over mold and bungled the repair of chronic leaks, will have the power to ask a federal judge to intervene to protect themselves and their children.”
NYCHA has been working to address its repair backlog for months. In May, the agency announced that it hoped to cut its backlog from 350,000 to under 100,000 by the end of 2013. Housing officials have noted that mold removal had already been its top priority, particularly after Hurricane Sandy drove up the number of affected units. The response time for mold, mildew, and vermin extermination was generally less than two weeks, NYCHA claims, according to the New York Times.
Now that timetable will be a legal requirement.
“While the federal court won’t be watching every move NYCHA makes, if tenants and leaders find that NYCHA is not complying with the conditions of this agreement, then we will ask the court to enforce this order,” Getulio Cruz, a reverend with Manhattan Together who also participated in the suit, said in a statement.