Last Tuesday morning, Sherron Paige and three of her neighbors from Red Hook East, one of the city’s oldest public housing projects, split a cab to lower Manhattan. Members of the City Council were set to grill New York City Housing Authority chair Shola Olatoye on the agency’s growing lead paint scandal, and Paige had been promised a chance to share her story. So, after taking a personal day from her job as a NYCHA custodial worker, Paige ascended the steps of City Hall to accuse Olatoye and the city of New York — both her boss and her landlord — of poisoning her four-year-old son, Kyan.
Back in November, a bombshell report from the New York City Department of Investigation revealed that the city stopped conducting required lead paint safety inspections in public housing in 2013, then knowingly lied about the inspections to federal authorities. Grabbing a seat near the front of the unusually packed council chambers, Paige watched as the councilmembers, led by the chair of the Committee on Public Housing, Ritchie Torres, spent four hours tearing into the embattled NYCHA leader on the wide-ranging failure, and questioning why the public was not immediately notified once the lapse was discovered.
Admitting that “communication could have been more precise,” Olatoye refused to answer repeated questions about when, exactly, she first learned that the agency was issuing false compliance reports.
“You don’t recall?” Torres pressed. “I find that incredible.”
When the councilmembers’ questions for Olatoye had finished, she exited the chamber alongside her staff, followed by a gaggle of reporters. Many of the aggrieved tenants, having only taken off work for the morning, left as well. But Paige hung around, waiting patiently as DOI Commissioner Mark Peters testified that it was still unclear how many apartments had tested positive for lead, and how many had not been properly tested at all.
When Peters was finished, Torres thanked him for his testimony, then announced that he’d be concluding the hearing early, on account of a “personal emergency.”
“That made me so mad,” Paige, thirty-four, recalls. “How they gonna talk about us like we’re not here, then just dismiss us like that?”
Most of the information gleaned from the hearing, Paige fumes, had been apparent to anyone living in NYCHA housing even before the DOI’s report came out. “They don’t listen to the people who actually live in these buildings,” she remembers thinking.
So instead of leaving, Paige marched defiantly to the front of the council chamber, holding a photo of Kyan. “My son is affected by elevated lead levels,” she announced to the room, as the councilmembers packed their things. “He’s lived in Red Hook since the day he was born, and I still don’t know if he’s safe.”
Paige learned that her son was at risk for lead poisoning this past summer — over a year after both Olatoye and Mayor Bill de Blasio were made aware of the gap in lead paint inspections, but months before they got around to informing tenants. She was compacting trash in Red Hook, one of her responsibilities as a NYCHA worker, when someone from the city health department called her with the news: A routine checkup had shown Kyan’s blood-lead levels were at 12 micrograms per deciliter, significantly higher than the maximum acceptable level of 5.
Immediately, Paige thought of the large hole in her wall, the result of a burst pipe, that exposed layers of paint in the hallway just outside Kyan’s bedroom. Over the past two years, she says, she’s filed at least half a dozen maintenance requests to fix both the pipe and the wall, to no avail. “I still couldn’t believe it,” she says. “That damn hole gave my son lead poisoning.”
While the initial diagnosis left her confused and angry, Paige says it also helped “connect some of the dots.” Kyan had hit all his milestones as a baby, but had started showing signs of a learning disability as a toddler. “He still struggles to form sentences,” Paige says. “He can’t hold a pencil like the other kids, and throws tantrums in class when he gets frustrated — it’s a lot for him.” Days before the hearing, Paige met with Kyan’s pre-K teacher and principal, who recommended he be placed in special education classes when he starts kindergarten next year.
Shortly before that, Mayor de Blasio had belatedly admitted to NYCHA’s lead paint inspection failures, saying he’d been informed of “the possibility of non-compliance” in March 2016. He said residents should have been told of the “whole picture” sooner, and defended Olatoye, whom he appointed in 2014. “Thank God,” the mayor told reporters, “there has not been harm done to any child because of the mistakes that were made.”
In the weeks since, as the mayor has dug in his heels on the claim that no was hurt, Paige’s voice has been among the loudest to challenge that narrative. As the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed last month, she’s alleging that the housing authority “knowingly and intentionally” failed to inspect her apartment for lead, and ignored repeated requests to fix the gaping hole in the wall adjacent to her son’s bedroom. “Kyan suffered serious and permanent injury as a result of NYCHA’s actions,” the suit claims.
Even after Kyan’s diagnosis, NYCHA steadfastly refused to acknowledge Paige’s apartment contained lead, despite an inspection from the city health department that determined this was the case. Only after the health department conducted a second test of the apartment’s dust, in which it again found lead, did NYCHA concede that something should be done. Finally, in October, a NYCHA employee arrived to cover and repaint the hole in the wall adjacent to Kyan’s bedroom, just as Paige had been requesting for years.
Reached for comment, mayoral spokesperson Olivia Lapeyrolerie maintained that there have been no medical consequences for any children in NYCHA housing as the result of lead exposure, and refused to comment directly on the lawsuit’s allegations. Asked directly about Paige, the mayor said he was “not going to speak to an allegation,” and assured reporters that this has been the “opposite” of an “ongoing, pervasive, continuous health problem.”
According to Paige and her attorney, Corey Stern, the city’s refusal to acknowledge the consequences of its actions may be putting thousands of children in harm’s way. “The universe of people affected by what NYCHA didn’t do and covered up is six times larger than the total population of Flint, Michigan,” Stern, who is the lead counsel for all plaintiffs in Flint, told the Voice. “It’s so much worse than people realize, and they don’t even know where to begin to fix the problems they’ve created.”
If Mayor de Blasio has met the lead scandal’s victims with deflection and denial, the city’s housing authority has taken that strategy a step further, actively blaming tenants for the lapse in inspections. On Saturday, the Daily News reported that NYCHA has been sending “breach of lease” notices to dozens of Red Hook tenants with young children, chiding them for a “failure to comply with [lead-based] paint regulations” and warning that eviction may be imminent. While a NYCHA spokesperson claimed the letters were sent accidentally, no one from the housing authority or mayor’s office has been able to explain how such an accident could have happened. (Neither has responded to Voice queries on the subject.)
“To hide this information from those who were impacted most is extremely alarming, but then to threaten eviction for NYCHA’s failures is truly disgusting,” Public Advocate Letitia James, who has called for Olatoye’s resignation, said in a statement to the Voice. “This is a case of blaming the victim and it is past time that NYCHA is held accountable.”
But holding the country’s largest public housing authority accountable to its 400,000 tenants has proved challenging, particularly when most of those residents are systematically excluded from regular inspections. Currently, NYCHA claims that it’s not required to regularly inspect 123,000 out of its 178,000 apartments — either because those apartments were built after 1960, when lead paint was banned (though still sometimes used) in city residences, or because the authority obtained a waiver from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development certifying the apartments as lead-free. Paige’s apartment fell into that latter group of exemptions, because the authority claims her apartment was inspected and remediated after the prior tenant moved out in 2012.
One likely explanation for this erroneous designation, and an untold number of others like it, is that the vast majority of NYCHA workers lack the federally required training to rid apartments of lead. Olatoye admitted as much at Tuesday’s hearing, noting that only thirty of NYCHA’s hundreds of employees had obtained the Environmental Protection Agency’s certification as of 2016. Asked if the authority planned on doing something about the thousands of apartments that may have been wrongfully exempted, she responded, “We can operate with what we know, and the data right now tells us that the 55,000 units [that weren’t exempted] are where we need to focus our attention.”
What NYCHA elects to do now, and what it may be forced to next, remains an open question. The DOI’s probe is ongoing, and a federal investigation into health and safety conditions at NYCHA apartments, launched last year by then–U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, will soon be completed, and could potentially result in a court-appointed federal monitor. Already, two top NYCHA officials have resigned, and a growing number of councilmembers, along with Letitia James, are calling on Olatoye to step down. For now, the chair maintains Mayor de Blasio’s support, though he too may be forced to re-evaluate his position that there’s been “very little impact from any of this.”
Meanwhile, NYCHA has a $17 billion backlog in capital funding needs and, under President Trump’s 2018 budget blueprint, faces a 20 percent cut to its operating budget — money that goes toward, among other things, lead remediation and janitorial salaries. In an attempt to avoid what Ritchie Torres has called a “financial death spiral,” the housing authority has embraced a controversial plan that involves leasing NYCHA land to private developers and cutting administrative staff. If a HUD rule change goes through, NYCHA tenants may soon see the percentage of income they pay in rent increase for the first time since 1981.
As for Paige, she says she’s focused on monitoring her son, and that her longer-term goal is to find a new apartment. As Kyan shoots a mini-basketball in the freshly painted hallway, where the contours of the hole are still partially visible, she shares an alarming statistic she recently learned: Of 113 Red Hook East apartments tested by NYCHA between 2013 and 2015, lead paint was found in 105 of them. How the city could have known this and still allowed her apartment to go years without an inspection, while simultaneously ignoring her repeated maintenance requests to fix an obvious lead paint hazard, is a question she’s still seeking an answer to.
“That they knew and didn’t do anything, I just don’t understand that,” she says. “Don’t sit here and tell me everything’s fine. My son got hurt — tell me what you’re going to do about that.”