Federal prosecutors are investigating whether the cash-strapped New York City Housing Authority may have filed false claims about lead paint in its apartments, in order to acquire funding from the federal government.
Lead paint can cause nerve, blood and brain damage—especially in children, pregnant women and the elderly—and has been banned in the US since the late 1970s. But many high rises across NYCHA's 328 public housing developments were constructed prior to the mandate, and the authority's work-order backlog is notoriously staggering—thanks in part to $17 billion in capital debt and years of declining support from Washington and Albany.
The NY Times reports that the Department of Health initially declined US Southern District Attorney Preet Bharara's request for all cases of elevated blood lead levels among NYCHA tenants, insisting that the document dump required a judge's order. That order was filed in federal court on Wednesday and also calls, sweepingly, for complaints of "unsafe, unsanitary or unhealthful conditions" across all NYCHA buildings and NYC homeless shelters.
Bharara's filings point out that NYCHA is required to maintain public housing that is "decent, safe, sanitary and in good repair."
"The health and wellbeing of our residents is a top priority, especially in our commitment to create safe, clean, and more connected communities," said a NYCHA spokesman in a statement Thursday. "We are fully cooperating with the DOJ's request." The NYC Health Department and the Department of Homeless Services both deferred comment to City Hall, which did not immediately comment on the probe.
Bharara's office plans to assess how NYCHA has responded to every lead paint allegation, including environmental inspections of apartments, blood lead level tests on residents, and any measures that have been taken to make apartments safe for habitation. The feds will also comb through all communications between DHS, NYCHA, the Health Department, and state and federal agencies about health and safety issues in public housing and shelters.
Earlier this year, Mayor de Blasio announced that the City would add more inspectors and repair workers to its Shelter Repair Squad, which was formed last year to tackle a glut of health and safety code violations. Around the same time, Comptroller Scott Stringer released a report that found that of the more than 500 family shelters in NYC, all but 60 of them had an immediately hazardous problem, from severe mold, to collapsed ceilings, to peeling lead paint.
In hopes of cutting into NYCHA's staggering deficit, Mayor de Blasio has begun carving out pockets of NYCHA land for private development with a percentage of affordable units. "We don't need them to build new houses," said Wykoff Gardens resident Beverly Corbin at a protest last fall. "We need them to take care of the ones we've already got, that we're living in."