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Gillibrand and Velázquez Demand NYCHA Clear the Air in Apartments Ahead of COVID-19 Second Wave

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Senator Kirsten Gillbrand speaks in Manhattan during the 50th anniversary of Pride in 2019.

lev radin/Shutterstock

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Nydia Velázquez demanded Monday that NYCHA conduct an air quality study in the thousands of public housing apartments that rely on aging and ailing ventilation systems.

A letter from the two Democrats to NYCHA Chair Gregory Russ cited THE CITY’s reporting on concerns that the inadequate air flow in the homes could contribute to the spread of the coronavirus as winter arrives and tenants are stuck inside.

Gillibrand and Velázquez, who represents a district that includes parts of Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan, insisted that NYCHA bring in independent medical experts to ensure the results are objective.

They referenced the surprise statement two weeks ago by Bart Schwartz, the federal monitor overseeing NYCHA, who revealed that thousands more children than originally estimated have been living in public housing apartments believed to contain lead paint.

They also noted that after THE CITY raised questions about the ventilation systems, NYCHA management claimed the problems have no impact on the spread of the virus.

The dual developments “are leading us to question the effectiveness of the Authority’s COVID-19 response and the credibility of its plans for ensuring residents safety from the virus over the winter,” they wrote.

Fan Replacement Stalled

NYCHA promised last year to repair all its broken roof fans and clean out clogged vents that are supposed to draw air out of thousands of apartments to help curb toxic mold.

But as THE CITY reported in August, officials abandoned that project and instead decided to replace all 10,000 fans by June 2021. The new plan has since stalled with New Yorkers facing the potential of a second wave of COVID-19 as winter approaches.

The coronavirus has slammed many NYCHA developments that rely on the roof-fan system — particularly at complexes that exclusively house senior citizens. 

Last month, THE CITY reported that of 47 NYCHA developments that recorded higher rates of COVID-infection than the citywide average, 45 use the mechanical exhaust systems.

At a recent City Council hearing, NYCHA General Manager Vito Mustaciuolo claimed poor ventilation does not contribute to COVID-19 spread. 

But medical experts say clear airflow inside buildings helps mitigate the virus’ movements, and they note a build-up of mold can exacerbate asthma. Asthma is an underlying condition that may make people more vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19.

Rep. Nydia Velázquez speaks in Manhattan, Sept. 7, 2020.

lev radin/Shutterstock

“These warnings have NYCHA residents understandably concerned that the lead, mold, poor ventilation, leaks and other substandard housing conditions could increase their risk of contracting the virus,”  Gillibrand and Velázquez wrote.

They called for NYCHA to explain how it’s communicating the level of danger posed by COVID-19 and how it intends to try to contain the virus “during the winter months.”

The two elected officials also demanded a study to “provide recommendations on how NYCHA can reduce the air concentration of airborne contaminants and improve the safety and health of residents living with air contaminants.”

They noted that NYCHA was supposed to receive about $150 million to address COVID-19 concerns under the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act. Gillibrand and Velázquez demanded “a full accounting of all CARES Act funding provided to NYCHA,” with a breakdown of spending.

‘Brink of an Emergency’

Their letter came a week after City Comptroller Scott Stringer accused NYCHA of sitting on millions of federal dollars that could be used for a faster fan fix. Citing THE CITY’s reporting, Stringer, who is running for mayor, declared: “We are on the brink of an emergency.”

On Monday night, Russ responded by shifting focus to Schwartz, claiming that the monitor’s statement about lead paint “offered an unfortunate and flawed picture of the proactive efforts underway to transform the Authority’s approach.” 

NYCHA Chair Greg Russ

Minneapolis Public Housing Authority

Russ said Schwartz was aware of NYCHA’s efforts to track down apartments with lead paint where young children either live or regularly visit.

The NYCHA chair also said he “strongly disagrees with many of the statements” in Gillibrand and Velázquez’s letter, and added a “full response” was in the works. Russ said NYCHA has been giving elected officials regular updates on the issues the duo raised.

“We will continue to provide information to resolve any questions regarding this matter,” he said.

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