Shutting off the water to a building to disguise leaks. Installing a refrigerator motor in a roof fan to cover up the fact that the fan didn’t work. Using foam spray, newspaper, cork and paint to make damaged walls look whole. Hiding flammable materials. Painting 2×4 lumber black to pretend that a fence was supposed to end where it had broken. Employing cardboard cutouts in place of ceiling tiles. Posting phony “danger” signs to keep prying eyes away from a building’s embarrassments.
Such are the ways NYCHA employees allegedly deceived federal inspectors, according to a complaint released Monday by the U.S. Attorney for New York’s Southern District along with a sweeping consent decree in which NYCHA and the city of New York accepted the imposition of a federal monitor and promised to spend billions to fix public housing.
“I don’t want to hold any element of government blameless: this administration, previous administrations, state government or federal government,” Mayor de Blasio said in an afternoon press conference. “More important is to fix what’s broken.”
Saying he was “disgusted” and made sick by the allegations in the federal complaint—some the city has admitted, and others that de Blasio says his administration will investigate further—the mayor said he felt “tremendous urgency” to address the problems with lead paint, mold, vermin, leaks, heat and hot water the U.S. attorney documented.
But while he cited progress at NYCHA in reducing maintenance complaints and crime, the mayor wanted: “People deserve the truth. It will take years to fix these underlying problems.”
A landmark agreement
In the consent decree, the Justice Department agreed not to pursue a lawsuit against NYCHA or any criminal charges. De Blasio said the agreement involves an “open-ended funding commitment” and will bind his successors at City Hall.
The agreement includes at least $4 billion in total city spending—including revenue forgone by not charging NYCHA for sanitation or police services, a practice de Blasio ended—over 10 years, $2 billion of that in capital money. An additional $1 billion in capital money over the next four years, plus $200 million every year after that if the agreement remains in effect, is also in the deal.
The monitor, to be nominated by federal prosecutors and approved by the court, will be paid for by the city and be given access to internal information and NYCHA personnel in order to ensure the authority is following the laws on lead paint, mold, vermin, heat and inspections. NYCHA also promised in the agreement to create a compliance department and a health and safety department.
De Blasio said he viewed the consent decree as a mechanism to achieve more cooperation with the federal government, and indicated optimism that, as has been the case at the NYPD and Department of Correction, a federal monitor could be a positive force.
“I was not forced for a minute,” de Blasio insisted in a tense exchange with reporters. Asked if he would apologize, de Blasio indicated that his administration was undermined by the decisions of the Bloomberg administration, Albany and Washington. “I apologize and I want to hear everyone else apologize. This is the first time the city has taken this seriously and it needs to.”
Lead, and lies
The consent decree confirms what has been acknowledged for months: That NYCHA stopped doing regular lead inspections during the Bloomberg administration, that senior authority leaders were aware of that lapse, that the authority falsely reported that NYCHA was doing the inspections for six years and that NYCHA didn’t use safe practices when dealing with lead.
The federal complaint also alleges that at least 19 children—and probably more—were sickened by lead paint in NYCHA apartments. Complicating the picture is the fact that eight of the 19 cases cited by the feds occurred in apartments the city listed as lead-safe under decision by previous administrations. The mayor said NYCHA was re-inspecting apartments that had been removed from the lead list.
The problems at NYCHA went well beyond lead, however. “Between 2011 and present, NYCHA residents have made many thousands of complaints about mold growth every year. In many cases, NYCHA staff verified that the mold growth covered 10 or more square feet. In nearly 300 cases between 2014 and 2016, the verified mold growth covered more than 100 square feet,” the consent decree reads. “Currently, after NYCHA has removed mold from apartments, the mold returns at least 30 percent of the time.”
But it was the U.S attorney’s allegations about NYCHA’s systematic deception of inspectors that truly broke new ground. The feds alleged that, “For a decade, NYCHA provided its staff with a list of ‘Quick Fix Tips’ to improve inspection scores. These Quick Fix Tips included replacing damaged ceiling tiles with ‘painted cardboard,’ covering broken fences with 2x4s painted black, and placing ‘improperly stored flammables’ ‘out of sight’ on the day of an inspection.”
The mayor promised “serious consequences” to anyone found to have been party to the deceptions. But he shut down a question directed to Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen about her role in overseeing NYCHA.
“We are not here to rehash every step of the past,” he said.
Councilman Ritchie Torres, a fierce critic of the administration, called the consent decree a “dark moment for public trust in government.”
“The mismanagement of NYCHA, as well as the attempt by the de Blasio Administration to mislead the public about the full nature and extent of that mismanagement, will be remembered as a blight on the legacy of our current mayor and those who came before him,” Torres said in a statement.
Mark Gjonaj, a Bronx Councilmember, called for a perjury investigation into testimony NYCHA officials had presented to the Council.
Judith Goldiner, a longtime advocate for NYCHA residents at The Legal Aid Society, said the federal complaint “shocks the conscience.”
“Nevertheless, NYCHA’s settlement with the SDNY is welcome news for the hundreds of thousands of residents who have borne the brunt of decades of disinvestment and neglect from Federal, State and City governments,” Goldiner continued in a statement. The additional city funding, she said, “is not an excuse for the federal government to turn its back on its responsibility to support public housing. It is also not an excuse for the state to shirk its fiscal responsibilities. “