City Council members scoffed Wednesday at a top NYCHA official’s claim that the authority’s failure to fix aging mechanical exhaust ventilation systems had nothing to do with the spread of coronavirus in public housing.

NYCHA General Manager Vito Mustaciuolo took that position during questioning at a Council hearing — despite general agreement among health experts and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that poor ventilation in indoor spaces helps spread COVID-19.

The hearing came a day after an investigation by THE CITY revealed that 47 NYCHA developments registered 3% to 9% rates of COVID-19 infection from March to mid-May — exceeding the citywide infection rate of 2.9%. Twenty-two of those developments house seniors and all but two rely on mechanical exhaust ventilation.

“If you believe as I do that poorly ventilated apartments are a Petri dish for COVID-19, then installing the roof fans becomes a public health emergency,” City Councilmember Ritchie Torres (D-The Bronx) declared.

Mustaciuolo testified at a Public Housing Committee hearing chaired by Councilmember Alicka Ampry-Samuel (D-Brooklyn), who at one point read to him the CDC’s advisory declaring that inadequate indoor airflow helps spread the virus.

Councilmember Alicka Ampry-Samuel (D-Brooklyn) speaks at a City Hall rally for additional public housing funds from the state, Feb. 3, 2020. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Poor circulation also allows for the growth of mold, which in turn exacerbates asthma, an underlying condition that makes individuals more vulnerable to effects of the coronavirus.

Citing THE CITY’s story, Torres asked Mustaciuolo, “Do you believe poor ventilation contributed to transmission of COVID in these developments?”

He replied, “No, I do not.”

“The opinion of the Housing Authority is out of touch with the medical community,” Torres (D-Bronx) told Mustaciuolo.

In his testimony, the Rev. Getulio Cruz of Metro IAF, the housing advocacy group that sued NYCHA to make it address mold problems, also noted THE CITY’s report in stressing the urgency of roof fan replacement.

“There is strong reason to believe that it’s critical to protecting tenants from COVID 19,” he stated.

Fan Replacement Delayed

As THE CITY previously reported, NYCHA originally promised to fix all its malfunctioning roof fans by May 2019. But the agency abandoned that plan and now says it will replace all 10,000 fans and clean out all the ducts by June 2021. 

Fan replacement and duct cleanup was supposed to start in July, but work was put on hold after questions arose about the safety and financial history of a contractor NYCHA hired to do much of the job. 

On Wednesday, Torres noted NYCHA would have to replace more than 1,000 fans a month through next June to meet its promise.

A worker installs a fan on the roof of a Manhattan NYCHA building. Credit: NYCHA

When Torres asked if NYCHA had the ability to do that, Mustaciuolo initially said, “We believe we do.” 

He backed off later in the hearing, stating, “Are we currently on track to install more than 1,000 a month? We’re not.”

“We will reset that as we move along,” Mustaciuolo added.

The roof fans — many dating to the 1950s and 1960s — are supposed to draw air out of apartments through a network of ducts. 

A consultant hired by NYCHA who inspected 200 apartments over three years warned the authority last year that half the system’s mold problems could be blamed on poor ventilation in apartments caused by malfunctioning fans and clogged air ducts.

In one Bronx NYCHA building inspected by the consultant, Microecologies, five of 10 fans didn’t work. And even when they did, ducts throughout the building were clogged with years of dust and debris, including a football-sized nest of roaches.

 A Missed Opportunity

Under questioning by Ampry-Samuel, NYCHA officials conceded that as of this week, over 15,000 unresolved requests from tenants for mold cleanup are languishing — including 7,296 that are more than 100 days old.

“How can you have so many complex work orders of more than 100 days old?” she asked Mustaciuolo.

He responded that abating mold is “complex” and takes lots of money: “It requires a significant amount of more investment.”

The general manager contended that despite the consultant’s findings, 98% of the ventilations systems inspected function. 

A Harvard expert said conditions at NYCHA buildings created a potential “perfect storm” for COVID-19 spread.

Mustaciuolo implied that the 47 developments cited by THE CITY had higher-than-average infection rates because they’re located in neighborhoods with higher-than-average rates. But he conceded that NYCHA had not done any analysis to back that assertion.

Meanwhile, with winter coming, more people are likely to stay indoors, fueling concerns of a second coronavirus wave. A Harvard public health expert told THE CITY that conditions at NYCHA buildings created a possible “perfect storm for people to get COVID-19.”

Torres suggested that NYCHA officials were running dangerously behind in preparations to safeguard buildings.

“The Housing Authority missed an opportunity to make sure that these apartments were properly ventilated,” he said.