In a press conference on Tuesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio shrugged off his administration's nearly two year delay in reinstating lead paint safety inspections in public housing, citing his other responsibilities as mayor. "Because sometimes it literally—when you’re in the middle of, as all of us are, running a whole host of things, it takes a while for some new ideas to develop," de Blasio said, essentially claiming that he was too bogged down with other mayoral duties to address the citywide lead poisoning crisis his administration has recently pledged to fix.
Lead paint inspections in NYCHA buildings stopped by the end of 2012, and weren't resumed until 2016. Senior administration officials knew about the gap in 2015, and former NYCHA head Shola Olatoye signed paperwork that indicated that the inspections were happening, even when she knew they weren't, according to a Department of Investigation report from late last year.
On Monday, after the Daily News reported that from 2012 through 2016, NYCHA knew of 820 children who tested positive for high levels of lead poisoning, the mayor announced that the city would inspect the 130,000 apartments believed to have lead paint exposure (the city has previously put that figure at 50,000).
"We’re going to eradicate this problem," de Blasio said at Tuesday's press conference.
Asked why it took him two years to conduct a full and thorough inspection, the mayor replied that it wasn't as big of an issue then as it is now, and that inspecting every potentially at-risk apartment was "literally a new idea that came out of a lot of discussion."
"What I think's happened here...is this was an issue that for years and years essentially wasn’t core to the public discourse," de Blasio said. "Obviously the inspections stopped in the previous administration, I think that is the core mistake here."
When a reporter asked him if his failure to immediately address the issue was because he didn't want it to become a campaign issue preceding the 2016 election, the mayor replied, "No, of course not."
"This issue had not been in the public domain."
In January, the de Blasio administration lowered the standard of lead present in blood levels necessary to conduct an investigation from 10 micrograms per deciliter to 5, but waited six months to officially announce the measure.
Some feel that the mayor's plan is too little, too late.
"It seems like with everything coming out all he makes is excuses," said Sherron Paige, a NYCHA custodial worker and longtime tenant at Red Hook East public housing, who says her son was lead-poisoned after the city ignored repeated maintenance requests to fix a large hole in her apartment.
Last summer, Paige learned her four year-old son Kyan had blood-lead levels of 12 micrograms per deciliter—more than double the new threshold de Blasio's administration recently announced. Paige says that Kyan hit all his milestones as a baby, but has struggled with learning disabilities as a toddler; she claims that this is the result of the gaping hole leaking lead paint dust into her apartment.
"He needs to be ashamed of himself. I feel like he needs to just step down," Paige said of de Blasio. She's currently embroiled in a class-action lawsuit against the city over lead paint levels in NYCHA apartments.
Paige's attorney Corey Stern also had harsh words for the mayor. "Months ago, Mayor de Blasio stated no children were hurt due to failures regarding lead hazard inspections. Then, the mayor claimed that only a handful were hurt. Then, after it was clear that more than 800 NYCHA children tested with lead levels over 5 micrograms per deciliter, he claimed they were poisoned somewhere else," Stern said in a statement to Gothamist, referencing de Blasio's claims from late last year that "very, very, very few kids" were affected by lead poisoning.
"Now [de Blasio] claims he is implementing a comprehensive strategy to eliminate lead," the attorney added. "It is difficult to understand why he needs a strategy on one hand... when on the other he maintains no one was hurt on his watch."
Stern echoed Paige's call for de Blasio to step down, saying "the sooner he does [resign], the more honestly and comprehensively the issues can be addressed."
De Blasio, for his part, claims that the city has been nothing but transparent in their efforts to combat lead poisoning in New York City apartments. He flatly denied a reporter's accusation in Tuesday's press conference that the mayor's office created the new threshold of blood-lead levels in January, but consciously decided not to publicize them until this month.
In an email, a spokesperson for the mayor told Gothamist, "We are contacting the families of all NYCHA children with lead exposure to ensure they’re connected to care. We didn’t create these problems, but are committed to fixing them." They also emphasized that it was the de Blasio administration who restarted the lead inspections.
"We have been constantly communicating as we learn things, as we refine strategies," de Blasio asserted in Tuesday's press conference, "and we’re going to keep doing it."
Additional reporting by Jake Offenhartz.