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NYCHA Workers Covered Up Signs of Mold to Skirt Cleanup, Probe Shows

The Washington Houses in East Harlem, Oct. 28, 2021.
The Washington Houses in East Harlem
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

For New York City’s 400,000 public housing residents, moisture building up in bathrooms is an enemy that spawns toxic mold and must be vanquished. But NYCHA staff can’t keep up with the demand for repairs.

At the Washington Houses in East Harlem, a NYCHA superintendent in charge of mold inspections allegedly found a simple way to solve this dilemma:

Pretend the moisture isn’t there.

The superintendent and his staff last year began reporting bogus data on the presence of moisture in apartments — falsely claiming there wasn’t enough present to require a cleanup inside apartments they’d inspected, according to a recent report by the federal monitor overseeing NYCHA.

When the superintendent got caught, he admitted he was trying to reduce the number of mold abatement jobs on his docket, the monitor said.

THE CITY has found that over the last year, seven NYCHA employees have been brought up on internal charges “for willful mold- and moisture-related infractions” at five separate public housing developments across the city.

In each case, NYCHA charged the workers with lying about moisture conditions in an apparent effort to lessen the number of mold abatements they’d be required to perform.

And over the last year the federal monitor red-flagged more than 600 mold and water leak inspections as problematic, referring them to NYCHA’s Compliance Division for further action.

“Employees are entering bad data into the handheld device, which is a problem. That’s the nature of the charges,” Daniel Greene, NYCHA’s chief of compliance told THE CITY in response to questions about the specific cases.

NYCHA Mold
NYCHA is supposed to deal with mold complaints within 15 days.
Via Federal Lawsuit

Greene declined to reveal the identities of the workers or even the developments where the fudging of data occurred, stating that each worker is entitled to due process in ongoing disciplinary proceedings.

But, he noted, “The mold inspection process is a laborious one. The superintendents are really overwhelmed sometimes. If they’re cutting corners, it’s sometimes not some nefarious purpose. It’s sometimes that they have a lot to go through.”

“I’m not saying it’s okay,” he quickly added.

‘A Cultural Problem at NYCHA’

NYCHA managers have for years struggled with a myriad of persistent problems that have contributed to deteriorating buildings and unsafe living conditions for tenants. They have often been accused of gross mismanagement and bureaucratic bungling.

But perhaps most disturbing is a longstanding pattern of NYCHA staff crossing the line from incompetence to malfeasance by purposely hiding what needs to be fixed.

Not all NYCHA employees have engaged in this duplicity. NYCHA staffers recently blew the whistle on corrupt contractors, while other Housing Authority workers uncovered failures to address mold and lead issues at developments turned over to private management companies.

But the temptation to engage in coverups has a long history at NYCHA, even after federal prosecutors highlighted the issue in 2018 court filings and an independent monitor was appointed the following year to oversee a transformation of the authority.

The tendency for trickery has been embraced by staff from senior managers making six figures to maintenance workers earning $29.98 an hour.

The pattern emerged in 2016 when the city Department of Investigation found that a maintenance worker performing a shower repair at a Bronx development had falsely reported the apartment he visited had working smoke detectors. Four hours later, a fire erupted there and killed two children.

The worker admitted he was in a rush and didn’t check the detectors. In 29% of 188 apartments DOI subsequently spot-checked, workers had failed to report smoke detectors that were missing, damaged or not functioning.

The next year DOI revealed that NYCHA senior management had for years falsely certified to the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) that it was performing all mandated lead paint inspections and cleanups. In 2012, workers had simply stopped doing required annual inspections of apartments with children.

Then in 2018 Manhattan federal prosecutors revealed a wide variety of deceptive practices — including managers instructing workers in writing on how best to hide problems when federal inspectors came around.

In December, DOI uncovered NYCHA workers lying about the effort to eradicate poisonous lead paint from apartments. This time, a whistleblower NYCHA lead paint inspector reached out to DOI to say his supervisor regularly ordered him to sign off on examinations of apartments he hadn’t checked.

Ultimately, DOI alleged the supervisor and another NYCHA manager routinely submitted documents to the city falsely stating that hundreds of apartments that hadn’t been properly inspected were clear of lead paint, exempting the units from further annual inspections.

“I do think that there was a cultural problem at NYCHA,” Greene told THE CITY. “For example, you might not understand how important it is to enter data correctly.”

‘Hostages in Our Own Homes’

The inputting of bad data on water leaks heightened one of NYCHA’s biggest challenges: eradicating mold, which is known to exacerbate asthma and other breathing-related problems, from inside tens of thousands of apartments.

In 2013, NYCHA settled a lawsuit alleging its failure to remove mold from the apartments of tenants with respiratory ailments in violation of the Americans With Disability Act. The Housing Authority remains under the oversight of a federal judge who monitors the cleanup.

It hasn’t gone well: NYCHA officials had agreed to remediate mold and fix the underlying problems that cause it within seven days for simpler cases, and within 15 days for complex problems. As of July, they’ve only been able to do that in 3.7% of the requested repairs, NYCHA acknowledged recently.

This failure is made worse when inspections that are supposed to document the existence of water leaks or mold aren’t performed properly. In recent months, THE CITY has discovered a disturbing pattern of inadequate inspections.

The Washington Houses in East Harlem, Oct. 28, 2021.
The Washington Houses have been plagued by mold, rats and more.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Take, for instance, the falsification of moisture data at the Washington Houses in East Harlem.

The 1,515-unit development, which opened in 1957, has faced a growing plethora of problems in recent years. As of September there were 5,560 open repair requests overall at Washington, up from 3,990 in September 2020.

The aging development was also the scene of a rat invasion in 2018, spurring 400 tenants to sign a letter to NYCHA demanding an extermination campaign.

“We are hostages in our own homes at night,” they wrote.

More recently, the superintendent overseeing mold inspections apparently decided recently that the staff’s ability to address every mold and/or leak request was simply too much to handle.

And so, the monitor stated, he admitted staff “were intentionally not taking proper moisture readings so they could reduce the number of

positive findings to lessen their workloads.”

That superintendent was one of the five employees caught by the monitor’s investigators deliberately submitting false data on water leaks and mold since November. Two more staffers were caught by NYCHA.

In all seven cases, the Housing Authority’s compliance unit — set up following the settlement with federal prosecutors and HUD — intervened and recommended the employees face disciplinary charges that are now pending, NYCHA officials confirmed.

‘Routinely Put in Bogus Data’

And problems with mold inspections go beyond the seven employees.

Since April 2020, investigators working for the monitor have uncovered 647 water leak and mold inspections that were not conducted properly or involved deception.

The bad inspections took place at more than 150 locations across NYCHA’s portfolio, including 12 developments that racked up eight or more infractions, according to a source familiar with the scope of the problem.

“There have been a few guys we found who routinely put in bogus data,” the source told THE CITY. “They could be terminated but they’re entitled to an administrative trial under civil service rules. Others might have severely blown the root cause [of mold] diagnosis or blamed a resident when it was clearly a [water] leak.”

Water damage inside of Shondequa Johnson’s apartment.
Water damage inside of Shondequa Johnson’s apartment.
Courtesy of Shondequa Johnson

For many tenants, the quest to remedy mold infestation can be maddening. At the Florentino Houses in East New York, Brooklyn, Shondequa Johnson, 45, described a recent interaction with NYCHA over mold

She said steam from an overactive radiator has consistently triggered mold buildup inside a bedroom closet. When contractors showed up three weeks ago in response to her multiple complaints, she said they plastered and painted over the area in question — failing to address the underlying cause.

Days later, a NYCHA superintendent showed up with a moisture reader and insisted there was no moisture present. Johnson believes the authority is taking that position to avoid fixing the underlying problem she says will result in mold returning.

“I believe there’s mold all along the wall under the paint,” she told THE CITY last week. “He said there’s no water damage. My closet is split and about to crack.”

“It’s just been a coverup,” she alleged.

Water damage inside of Shondequa Johnson’s apartment.
Shondequa Johnson said water badly damaged her closet.
Courtesy of Shondequa Johnson

Rochell Goldblatt, a NYCHA spokesperson, wrote in an emailed response to THE CITY last week that to date, 590 of the water leak inspection cases had been closed. Most of those inspections involved minor infractions, but 215 of the cases were serious enough that NYCHA took further steps, Goldblatt wrote.

She described new procedures aimed at preventing staff from cutting corners on mold and water leak repairs: With minor infractions, employees are instructed on proper procedures in what NYCHA calls “mold huddles.”

For more serious and repeat violations, the Compliance Unit “recommends that formal instructional or counseling memos be issued.”

As for willful violations, the unit brings formal disciplinary charges.

Due to the scope of the problem, the Compliance Unit recently “issued an agency-wide Compliance Advisory Alert to refrain from such practices,” Goldblatt wrote.

‘Don’t Enter Bad Information’

Representatives of Teamsters Local 237, the union that represents the NYCHA employees handling the mold inspections, countered that the workers are often overwhelmed by the volume of requested water leak repairs, and that the devices used to check moisture levels often malfunction.

“It’s the lack of training, they’re understaffed and there’s no system in place to not only calibrate the machines or check them,” said Carl Giles, Local 237 director of the union’s housing division. “Because they are under pressure to get it done, but are not getting the time carved out to address that issue and they have 50 other issues that day, they are not doing it as thorough.”

Goldblatt argued that the discovery of this deceptive behaviour and the resultant response is “further proof that the HUD agreement is working. NYCHA’s Compliance, Quality Assurance and Environmental Health and Safety departments are ensuring NYCHA and its employees are following federal, state and city guidelines and taking corrective actions when necessary.”

Greene, the head of NYCHA’s compliance division, said management is working to educate workers about proper procedures in eradicating lead paint and mold. Bringing disciplinary cases against staff who deliberately cut corners makes clear that following the rules is crucial to turning NYCHA around, Greene said.

“We’re trying to build a bridge with employees and say ‘Don’t enter bad information, this is how to do this’,” he said. “We want these [disciplinary hearings] to be successful so that we can stop some of these things.”

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