Additional reporting by Rachel Holliday Smith
NYCHA’s longstanding plan to tackle mold infestations by bringing fresher air to thousands of poorly ventilated public housing apartments could also help tamp down a potential second wave of COVID-19.
But there’s a big problem: A major roof-fan replacement project is way behind schedule — and an internal Department of Investigation examination has found the main vendor hired to do the job has a history of alleged safety and financial issues, THE CITY has learned.
Housing Authority officials have promised to replace 10,000 roof fans by next June at hundreds of buildings where air circulation inside apartments is poor thanks to aging, broken equipment and vents clogged with decades of dust.
But as of Monday, only three of the fans had been installed across NYCHA’s entire portfolio of 316 developments.
The fan fix-up was originally supposed to have been finished by May 2019, but has stalled due to a number of factors.
Among them: the recent discovery that a firm NYCHA awarded a $10 million contract for the work has been accused of starting an accidental fire during a roof repair, defaulting on a $500,000 bank loan and exaggerating its revenue stream.
Meanwhile, the fall and winter — and the threat of more COVID-19 casualties in NYCHA developments — approach. For the thousands of tenants now living in apartments with lousy circulation, those fans can’t come soon enough.
“NYCHA tenants need all the exhaust fans to work right away,” said the Rev. Getulio Cruz, pastor of Monte Sion Christian Church on the Lower East Side and a leader of Metro Industrial Areas Foundation, the housing advocacy group that sued to force NYCHA to address its pervasive mold problem.
Little Breathing Space
The federal lawsuit accused NYCHA of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to remove mold from thousands of apartments of tenants with asthma and other breathing maladies. NYCHA settled in 2013 and promised to address the problems.
Cruz said his group has been pressing housing officials to fix the faulty fans since 2016 “because proper ventilation, by itself, could solve almost half of the mold problem in NYCHA.”
He called the delays particularly concerning given that mold is believed to trigger and exacerbate asthma, which can increase the risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19.
“Since COVID-19 has resulted in NYCHA residents — like everyone else — being forced to remain indoors for longer periods, this has meant that many people are continually being exposed to dangerous mold conditions in their apartments,” Cruz added.
Records indicate NYCHA was hit hard by the virus last spring.
The city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene released statistics showing that by mid-May, 7,818 of NYCHA’s 382,000 tenants had tested positive for COVID-19.
Health officials said 1,241 tenant deaths in city public housing were attributable to COVID-19 or “likely COVID-19.” City health department officials said last week they have not updated those numbers since May. Citywide, there were 2,008 confirmed and probable COVID deaths reported between June 1 and Friday.
Forty-Six Fans a Day
Epidemiologists have concluded that the coronavirus can hang in the air in enclosed spaces for extended periods, and transmission is much more likely in areas with poor ventilation.
About 65% of NYCHA’s 170,000 apartments rely on old mechanical ventilation systems that date to the 1950s and 1960s, according to NYCHA’s federal court-appointed monitor.
Many of the mechanisms, which are supposed to draw air out of apartments up to the roof, no longer function. Vents are often clogged, causing a lack of circulation that contributes to the formation of dangerous mold.
In response to questions from THE CITY, NYCHA spokesperson Barbara Brancaccio insisted Friday the authority will meet its new target of cleaning out vents and installing 10,000 new fans by June 30 of next year. That works out to putting in 46 fans every single business day.
The three installed so far were place at the Wald Houses in the East Village.
“The roof fan upgrade project has continued to advance, even throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” Brancaccio wrote. “A project of this magnitude — size, scope and financial investment — involves multiple stages of planning and phases of implementation, and requires significant due diligence, and our steadfast efforts and timing are on pace with all of the necessary steps that must be taken.”
Work on Hold
But the project is now on hold following DOI’s discovery of the main vendor’s past.
Last month, NYCHA awarded Green Builders Group New York LLC of Brooklyn a $10.4 million no-bid contract to clean out vents and install new roof fans at thousands of public housing buildings across the city.
Green Builders won the contract on an emergency basis after NYCHA had a difficult time finding vendors to do the work.
The federal monitor overseeing NYCHA is now looking into Green Builders’ winning the contract after it appears the Housing Authority had earlier rejected the company’s previous bid to install roof fans because the firm lacked “requisite experience for the scope of work,” according to a source familiar with the ongoing inquiry.
Green Builders got the job on July 9 after NYCHA relied on a background check by DOI that Housing Authority officials say gave the company a clean bill of health.
Soon after Green Builders was hired, however, investigators working for the federal monitor came forward and raised red flags regarding “litigation” involving the contractor, Brancaccio confirmed.
DOI did a second background check, and on July 23 NYCHA Inspector General Ralph Iannuzzi produced an eight-page detailed report obtained by THE CITY that found multiple issues — starting with an accidental fire in The Bronx.
According to court records and fire officials, the fire ignited in late 2018 when Green Builders was repairing the roof of a two-family home in Williamsbridge. Clinton Major, 68, was staying in the first floor of the home for the owners, keeping an eye on the workers coming and going.
Major told THE CITY that on Dec. 29, 2018, he was on the first floor when a passerby who’d been sitting in a van across the street ran over and began pounding on the door, shouting that the roof was ablaze. The resulting fire required an “all hands” call to Battalion 15 at the local firehouse.
‘It was Horrible’
Fire marshals looking into the cause determined Green Builders workers had been illegally using a blowtorch on the roof — and had accidentally set the fire and fled, according to fire officials and a lawsuit filed by the building owners’ insurance company.
“It was horrible,” Major told THE CITY. “If I had been taking a nap in there or something? I could have been asleep and the whole building could have gone up.”
The owner’s insurance company, United States Liability Insurance Company, filed suit against Green Builders, seeking $300,000. The suit is pending.
A lawyer for the insurance company did not return calls. Green Builders’ president, Hammad Khan, said he couldn’t discuss the lawsuit, but told THE CITY his company did not cause the fire.
Iannuzzi also noted another lawsuit in his report: In June 2019, Santander Bank sued Green Builders, accusing the firm of defaulting on a $500,000 line of credit.
The bank’s lawsuit alleges that Green Builders had obtained the line of credit in May 2018 and had promised to repay it all within a year — but in February 2019, while still owing $388,000, the firm requested that the payback date be extended to 2023.
The bank sued and obtained a default judgment against the firm in October, but the suit was later settled and the judgment was vacated in May 2020, according to Rashmi Atri, a lawyer who represented Green Builders.
Green Builders’ Khan told THE CITY, “Somehow the payment was not made and we agreed to it and we took care of the issue.”
In addition, Iannuzzi raised questions about whether Green Builders had deliberately inflated its net worth when seeking the NYCHA roof fan contract.
In its application, Green Builders claimed gross annual revenues of $2.5 million to $4.9 million, with a 12-month aggregate amount of $6.5 million in 2019. To Dun & Bradstreet, which collects and discloses corporate data, Green Builders reported an annual revenue of $40.1 million for 2019, according D&B records.
Iannuzzi said his review of Green Builders’ contracts produced a far lower estimated gross annual revenue in 2019 of $1 million.
Asked by THE CITY about the DOI’s findings, Brancaccio said after reviewing the IG’s report, NYCHA officials contacted Green Builders and demanded explanations for the various issues.
“Without question, NYCHA will take all appropriate action necessary and warranted,” she wrote.
Meanwhile, Green Builders has yet to install a single roof fan. On Friday Khan said, “Our attorney will be answering the inspector general. Definitely soon.”
A ‘Massive Effort’
Long before coronavirus arrived at NYCHA in March, the authority had promised to fix its mold problem as part of its court settlement. In 2018, the authority crafted a plan that included a promise to repair every malfunctioning NYCHA roof fan across the city by May 2019.
That deadline came and went without the fans getting fixed. Brancaccio explained that at the time, the authority changed its plans and opted to replace rather than repair the fans.
“NYCHA made a decision in May 2019 to undertake this massive effort of proactively replacing all of the roof fans to upgrade infrastructure, provide more reliable systems, and optimize ventilation,” she wrote. “The new roof fans will be more efficient and provide more reliable service for our residents.”
A federal monitor appointed in March 2019 began working with the authority to implement reforms, demanding that management produce a detailed “action plan” on how to fix the mold problem — including its plans to replace roof fans.
‘The new roof fans will be more efficient and provide more reliable service for our residents.’
The monitor approved NYCHA’s new plan on March 9, 2020 — about two weeks before New York’s pandemic-spurred pause. From the start, however, the authority struggled to find vendors that could handle such a daunting task.
NYCHA officials began seeking contractors to do the job last year before the pandemic and in November managed to hire one vendor, Sahara Construction Corp. of Queens, to handle some of the work. The search for other contractors to do the rest, however, slowed to a crawl.
To speed things up, NYCHA waived competitive bidding requirements and switched to hiring vendors on an emergency basis. Officials say they solicited proposals from nearly 900 contractors, but only five responded. Four were later deemed ineligible or too expensive.
In July, NYCHA hired Green Builders and plans to hire one more.
That contract has yet to be awarded.