The Toll of NYCHA’s Lead Lies: A Brooklyn Girl Poisoned as Officials Covered Up Danger
More than 5,000 public housing apartments in buildings long ago deemed “lead free” contain lead paint, THE CITY has learned. And that number is likely to grow. Meet a resident of one of those complexes: Mikhaila Bonaparte, who was born in 2013, just days before NYCHA falsified its lead report to the feds.
The inspectors arrived at the Tompkins Houses in Brooklyn to check for lead paint when resident Shari Broomes was a young woman. They randomly tested a couple of apartments and later declared the entire public housing development — all 1,031 units — to be “lead free.”
The Tompkins sampling was part of a citywide effort New York City Housing Authority managers undertook in the early 2000s to reduce the number of apartments they were required to inspect each year. All told, NYCHA deemed nearly 84,000 public housing units in 170 developments citywide to be lead free — even though the vast majority of them weren’t actually tested.
Broomes doesn’t remember hearing anything about the testing then or anything about the determination of no lead paint problems at Tompkins. Until now.
An investigation by THE CITY has revealed that more than 5,000 “lead free” public housing apartments — including some at Tompkins — contain lead paint. And that number is likely to grow with test results, via a lead-detecting device called XRF, pending for another 40,000 units, THE CITY found.
The alarming truth about these units has quietly emerged behind the scenes after NYCHA was forced to re-inspect 134,000 apartments officials suspected might contain lead. That included the 84,000 units previously declared “lead free.”
The re-inspections began in 2018 after federal prosecutors filed a damning complaint detailing years of deceit by NYCHA managers to cover up squalid conditions — from toxic mold infestations to busted elevators to rat invasions — tormenting many of NYCHA’s 400,000 tenants.
And prosecutors cited NYCHA for lying about its lead paint crisis to the federal government, the press and — most of all — to tenants.
The prosecutors specifically noted anecdotal evidence that raised doubts about whether NYCHA’s “lead free” apartments were actually uncontaminated by lead, which can harm children’s development. Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered the do-over in July of that year.
Tens of thousands of lab test results remain pending and NYCHA still has to reinspect another 30,000 units, but the results uncovered so far are alarming. In some “lead free” developments, half of the apartments for which NYCHA has received lab results have been found to contain lead, THE CITY’s analysis found.
In an emailed response to THE CITY’s questions about delays in lead testing, NYCHA spokesperson Rochel Goldblatt wrote, “XRF testing is a labor intensive process that includes many steps and we want to ensure the process is done correctly and we are not missing any data points. Once this process is complete, we submit the results.”
For the thousands of tenants living in these apartments, the results of the retesting effort are particularly disturbing. For years, they’d believed there was no potential threat.
One of those tenants is Shari Broomes. She still lives in the eighth-floor Tompkins apartment where she grew up, and is now raising three children there.
Her youngest, Mikhaila Bonaparte, was born in October 2013 — just days before NYCHA falsified lead disclosures to the federal government. Now, Mikhaila and her family are paying the price for NYCHA’s lead lies.
“They should care more about their tenants and their well being, their safety in these apartments,” Broomes told THE CITY recently. “The quality of life is at a minimum here. There is no type of — what’s the word I’m looking for? They don’t give us the inkling that we’re going to be OK while we’re staying in these places.”
‘They Didn’t Show Up’
Broomes has tried her best to keep Mikhaila safe. Certain conditions made that difficult.
Paint chips would fall off the wall and collect along the baseboards throughout the apartment. Paint dust coated the floor and window sills. As the paint residue fell, Broomes did what she could to keep up.
“I would sweep and mop every day, to no avail,” Broomes said. “I actually put duct tape to kind of, like, cover up the big holes in the wall so that it would stop dropping onto the floor. So I would duct tape it up, duct tape it up — and it would be in other places that it would start crumbling so that I would have to do it again.”
Tompkins Houses, which opened during the early days of the Johnson administration, has been falling apart for years. By 2016, as Broomes tried to protect her then-toddler daughter, NYCHA was struggling to provide safe and healthy conditions for the 2,700 tenants who live at her South Williamsburg housing complex.
It was, Broomes decided, simply impossible to stay ahead of the persistent cascade of paint chips and dust landing exactly at the level where Mikhaila spent her days.
“As she was learning to crawl and walk, at that time it was learning the world through her mouth. So everything that she touched she tasted. Everything she played with, she’d put in her mouth. Most of the time she’d play like going along the hallways and in her room. These were places where it was really bad at the time.”
Broomes says she put in multiple work tickets asking the city Housing Authority to come in and address these conditions, but to no avail.
“They’d say that they’d come and they don’t show up,” Broomes recalled. “It used to blow my mind.”
The Promise of Years Past
Tenants began moving into the Tompkins Houses on a frigid day in January 1964. Tompkins was brand new, the latest addition to the city’s then-expanding public housing portfolio.
William Reid, a railroad executive appointed Housing Authority chair by then-Mayor Robert Wagner, extolled the new development as a beacon of hope for lower-income New Yorkers desiring safe, clean housing surrounded by trees and green space.
Reid pointed out that Tompkins’ 1,000-plus “modern apartments” were spread out in eight buildings over 11.9 acres, taking up only 18% of the site. The rest of the development was “devoted to landscaping, walkways, sitting areas, play areas and parking facilities.”
Local newspapers reported that Tompkins even had a model apartment prospective tenants could inspect, with contemporary furnishings designed by students at nearby Pratt Institute. Monthly rent ranged from $56 to $89, including utilities, and the income cap was set at $5,080 for a family of four.
At the time, Tompkins and all the other developments NYCHA managed were still viewed as highly desirable places to live, backed by the full federal funding of public housing and what would soon become Lyndon Johnson’s ambitious Great Society campaign to end poverty in America.
Lead paint was then used throughout the nation, despite well-established agreement within the medical community that its ingestion by young children could damage their cognitive abilities for years.
New York City had banned the sale of lead paint in 1960, but it was still used by NYCHA for years afterward. In fact, lead paint was present throughout tens of thousands of NYCHA apartments.
Including at the Tompkins Houses.
A Family Grows
In 1992, Congress passed the Residential Lead Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act. That was just two years before Shari Broomes and her family moved into Tompkins. She was 11 years old.
The act required the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) to come up with a plan to address the eradication of potential damage caused by the lingering presence of lead paint in tens of thousands of apartments across the nation.
HUD promised to craft “procedures to eliminate as far as practicable lead based paint hazards” in both public and private housing. That included NYCHA, the nation’s biggest public housing system.
For Broomes’ family, however, lead paint was hardly a front-burner concern. Soon after the family moved into Tompkins, her mother, Anthea Bishop, found herself confronting more obvious obstacles that made living there difficult.
By then, Tompkins was 30 years old. Yet somehow the apartment still had the same kitchen cabinets, floor tiles, heating system, electrical wiring and most of the same appliances in place when the development opened in 1964.
And by the early 1990s, NYCHA had already begun its long decline. Cutbacks to federal funding initiated by the Reagan administration in the 1980s led to a reduction in maintenance and a steadily growing backlog of repair requests.
Tenants would put in work “tickets” with NYCHA’s command center requesting fixes, and then wait. And wait some more.
“Since my mom has been living here, she’s done her best to keep up the apartment,” Broomes, said during a recent interview. “But there’s been many, many repair tickets over the years. It would take them years to fix things.”
For years, the family waited in vain for NYCHA to replace a leaking pipe under the kitchen sink that was rotting out the underlying cabinets. They came to believe floor tiles in the kitchen that were chipping and peeling would just be that way for good.
The circulation vent in the bathroom hadn’t functioned in years. Paint chips and dust collecting along the baseboards and at the window sill edges became just part of the scenery.
In some cases, young Shari’s mother fought NYCHA’s negligence by bringing the authority to housing court. In other cases, the conditions remained as is. The sink, the floor tiles, the vent, the paint chips — nothing changed, year after year after year.
Eventually these problems became Broomes’ problems. She became the tenant of record when her mother moved to the Gowanus Houses, another NYCHA development a few miles away, to care for her own ailing mother. Broomes now occupied the three-bedroom unit with her two young sons.
Then on Oct. 7, 2013, the family grew by one. Broomes gave birth to Mikhaila Bonaparte at Woodhull Hospital, just a few blocks away from Tompkins. Mikhaila and her mother returned home to the same apartment Broomes had lived in since she herself was a little girl.
NYCHA’s False Report
The year Mikhaila was born and began her life in Tompkins Houses, a top level NYCHA executive learned that the authority was not performing visual inspections of apartments for lead paint as required by local law and federal regulation. The supervisor notified his superior.
By 2013, more and more NYCHA managers were realizing the authority was not in compliance with laws and rules regarding the abatement of lead paint.
That was a serious problem: When they filed their annual report with the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD), the managers were required to certify that they were in compliance or potentially forfeit hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding HUD sends to the authority every year.
On Oct. 11, 2013, days after Mikhaila was born, then-NYCHA Chairman John Rhea submitted NYCHA’s Fiscal 2014 Annual Plan certifying that the authority was in compliance on lead paint. It was not.
A city Department of Investigation later revealed that Rhea’s false certification was just the beginning. NYCHA’s top management continued this practice year after year, through 2016.
Manhattan federal prosecutors would later file a complaint detailing how NYCHA management had systematically lied to HUD, the press, the public and tenants about their failure to address multiple squalid conditions — particularly on lead paint.
‘It Was Sitting in Her’
When Mikhaila was 2 years old, Broomes’ mother began to detect changes in her granddaughter. Mikhaila spent all her time either in the Tompkins apartment or in Bishop’s NYCHA apartment in the Gowanus Houses in Boerum Hill.
“My mom, she notices everything,” Broomes said. “Mikhaila started acting weird. She wouldn’t get any sleep. She wouldn’t keep any food down. She would throw up every time she would eat, and we were getting concerned.”
In August 2016, Broomes was planning to enroll Mikhaila in a preschool that required a doctor’s exam. She took her daughter, then approaching her third birthday, to Woodhull, the hospital where the child was born.
Though all lead is considered toxic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has, since 2012, recommended medical intervention for any child under six years old who registers a level of lead in their blood of five micrograms per deciliter. At Woodhull, doctors checked Mikhaila’s lead level.
The afternoon of Aug. 31, 2016, Broomes was working her job for the city Parks Department when she got a call on her cell phone from Woodhull Hospital.
“They said I had to come back immediately, that I need to bring my daughter in immediately,” she recalled.
The doctors told Broomes the lead level in her daughter’s blood had registered 32 micrograms per deciliter — more than six times the level the CDC said should trigger medical intervention.
Two days later, Mikhaila returned for a second test. This time the level registered 37 micrograms deciliter — essentially off-the-charts lead poisoning.
“They let me know that her lead test level was at a range that was very dangerous,” Broomes said. “I was so scared. I was heartbroken. I was frustrated. When they first told me that she had the lead inside of her, then I knew in my head why she wasn’t eating and sleeping.
“I think it was sitting in her.”
And the doctors at Woodhull made one other thing quite clear: The effects of lead poisoning in young children can take time to abate.
“I was, like, stressed and depressed and worried about my daughter,” Broomes recalled. “The doctor told me that it’s going to take a long time for the lead to course out of her system.”
Next: Mikhaila struggles in school as her mother fights NYCHA for the truth about the apartment where both of them were raised. THE CITY traces NYCHA’s history of lies and coverups through the ongoing odyssey of the Brooklyn mother and daughter.