In a public forum hosted online by the Office of the Public Advocate, physician Raja Flores explained how health hazards found in New York City public housing, like mold, can lead to diseases such as asthma, diabetes, obesity, hypertension, heart disease, cancer and infections.
“What do all these things have in common?” said Flores. “They all predispose you to COVID.”
Last month, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Flores, New York City Housing Authority residents and community organizers shared their concerns regarding the poor condition of the city’s public housing units and how it affects residents’ health. Data released by the mayor’s office showed that 1,241 NYCHA residents died or likely died of COVID-19 between March 17 and May 17.
The problem for many residents is mold, which under normal circumstances, poses health risks such as asthma and respiratory disease. In 2018, an assessment from the New York State Department of Health found that 30% of NYCHA apartments had mold. In 2019, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York appointed a federal monitor to supervise NYCHA, which was mandated to improve living conditions in its buildings. According to a July report issued by NYCHA, $18 billion is needed for an assortment of repairs to meet basic housing quality standards. Of that $18 billion, $9.5 is needed for mold removal.
Iman Sylvain is a mold expert and research associate at the Innovative Genomics Institute COVID-19 Diagnostics Lab, a group comprising scientists from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, San Francisco. Sylvain, in an email, said that not only does mold compromise the respiratory system, triggering diseases such as asthma and allergy, but living with it is also linked to anxiety and depression. Also, some molds produce toxins that can be carcinogenic and mutagenic, she said.
“SARS-Cov-2 is a virus that impacts the respiratory system, and many NYCHA residents already have compromised respiratory systems,” said Sylvain. “Essentially, COVID-19 compounds the experience of living in moldy housing. Sheltering in a toxic place could be a death sentence.”
Raja Flores, chief of the division of thoracic surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital, is concerned about NYCHA residents’ health, after noticing peculiarities in some of his patients in the hospital’s East Harlem location.
While treating Aspergilloma, a disease caused by fungus in the lungs, Flores discovered that many of his patients who required invasive lung cancer operations did not smoke but lived in NYCHA housing.
“After the fact, I’m looking at a sick patient and I just know it’s preventable,” he said, about their illness, “especially when I go to their homes and I see what circumstances they’re living in. And I’m like, OK, this is why you’re sick.”
In NYCHA housing, 83% of apartments have at least one severe health hazard, a living condition that poses health problems to tenants, according to a 2018 assessment by the New York State Department of Health.
For Octavia Watson, 35, the decision whether to send her kids to school was a dilemma. Watson, who lives in the Holmes Tower on 1st Avenue has two children with asthma and one with sickle cell anemia. Knowing COVID-19 affects kids with underlying conditions, Watson opted for remote learning in the fall out of concern for her son with sickle cell anemia. Her other son with asthma had already been having trouble breathing, complaining about his chest, she said.
“What happens when it’s cold, or with remote learning starting the fall?” she said. “Now they’re stuck inside.” Watson has been living with mold in her apartment since 2015, a few months after she moved in, she said.
For NYCHA residents, mold complaints have gone unheard for years, according to Lakeesha Taylor, 47. Also a resident in Holmes Tower, Taylor has lived in public housing all her life and said the conditions have deteriorated.
“I noticed things starting to go bad maybe probably five, six years ago,” she said. Although contractors cleared the fungus in 2018, the mold has returned every year since, even though the repair team continues to close the repair ticket, said Taylor, adding that she can still hear “water dripping in the wall,” when she’s in the bathroom.
“If you don’t fix the cracks in the buildings, what are they going to?” said Taylor. “If you don’t fix the plumbing in the building, what is that going to prove? You have to fix the infrastructure of the building in order to stop the mold,” she said.
Ivie Bien Aime, the community organizer of housing equity for the Office of the Public Advocate, said she heard similar complaints.
“They had many work orders that were open to remove the mold,” she said. “The workers would come and usually they would paint over it, instead of really addressing the underlying issue, which actually often involves leaks within the walls.”
In order to raise public awareness of the issue, the public advocate’s office organized a press tour last December.
“Based on the visuals of it, it was really something to behold, to see the amount of mold, to hear that tenants were living like this for years,” said Aime. “It’s against the law, it’s against health regulations.”
In a statement, NYCHA said that it has implemented “proactive measures” in accordance to the 2018 Baez Consent Decree, a federal court order which required new procedures and protocols to remediate mold, and the 2019 HUD Agreement, which required NYCHA to improve living conditions and undergo reforms and organizational restructuring under the supervision of a federal monitor.
Additionally, NYCHA cited their cooperation with the federal monitor to implement plans to upgrade infrastructure and address mold issues, including a $50 million roof fan replacement plan and improvements in staff training, mold repairs and quality assurance.
Karen Blondel, 57, a resident of the Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn and an environmental organizer with the Fifth Avenue Committee, a community organization in South Brooklyn that works on affordable housing, economic development and adult education, said roofs in NYCHA buildings are vulnerable to water intrusion, a problem she’s been dealing with since Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
“If nobody comes in and fixes the roof, then mold starts building up and corrupting the wall,” said Blondel. Although rainfall on the roof was minimal, the storm surge damaged boilers and electrical units in the basement, leaving residents without power and heat. The only solution involved matches and stove tops, said Blondel.
“We put water on our stove in order to create steam and stay warm those first couple of weeks,” she said. The steam created condensation which exacerbated the mold problem.
“It got really, really bad, and we are still in the process of trying to get that remediation done,” said Blondel.
Regarding NYCHA plans to install fans on all its buildings, the fans must function and be calibrated and maintained, said Blondel. They are “only part of the overall cure,” she said.
(Photo by Seiji Yamashita)