The federal monitor overseeing NYCHA has teamed up with the city’s corruption watchdog — which has subpoena power that he does not — to figure out what happened with the arsenic scare at the Jacob Riis Houses that has frightened and enraged tenants there.

On the Friday evening of Labor Day weekend, NYCHA and Mayor Eric Adams made a surprise announcement that test results had detected arsenic in the water at Riis, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and advised the 2,600 residents there not to drink or cook with the water until tests showed the water was clear of contaminants.

A week later, this past Friday night, NYCHA and Adams’ team suddenly reversed course, telling a roomful of 300 furious tenants at a community meeting that the test results were actually flawed — and that there was no arsenic in the water. The room erupted in anger and disbelief.

The federal monitor, Bart Schwartz, opened an investigation the day after the initial announcement but provided no details. On Tuesday night in a virtual community meeting with tenants, Schwartz for the first time discussed what he intends to uncover going forward.

“First and foremost, it appears as if no resident was in danger of arsenic poisoning and that is the most important issue I want to stress,” he said. “But that’s not the end of the issue or the end of the inquiry. It’s just the beginning.”

Schwartz, who was appointed in 2017 by federal housing officials, the mayor and federal prosecutors as part of an agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), federal prosecutors and City Hall to address years of NYCHA mismanagement, said he will be working with the DOI inspector general who is responsible for public housing, Ralph Iannuzzi. The IG has subpoena power, while the monitor does not.

NYCHA federal monitor Bart Schwartz spoke via Zoom to Bronx public housing residents, Oct. 22, 2020. Credit: Screengrab/NYCHA Federal Monitor/Zoom

And Schwartz promised to bring in an independent environmental consultant to review the test results that are the center of this debacle — recalling a conversation he had with Riis Tenant Association President Daphne Williams, who asked for such an inquiry.

“We will find a way to find the scientific help that is needed,” he said.

Adams Pushes Back

Schwartz’s comments came a day after Adams criticized the monitorship at an unrelated press conference.

“We are paying a lot of money to the federal monitor,” Adams said Monday. “How did this happen? That’s the real question. I question these whole roles of these federal monitors to be there.” 

Adams added: “He’s been there for all of these years. All that money that we spent, that money could have gone to many repairs. And so I’m going to do a deep dive. We were notified on Friday [Sept. 2], they were notified on Monday [Aug. 29]. It’s unacceptable.”

On Tuesday Schwartz said Adams got his chronology wrong, stating that he was first notified of the Riis situation on Sept. 3. 

“The first that I learned of the problem is Saturday morning on Labor Day Weekend,” Schwartz said. “I got up and looked at the news. This was front and center.”

Asked by THE CITY about the date discrepancy, a spokesperson for Adams, Fabian Levy, said the mayor was referring to NYCHA’s prior knowledge of the test results — not the monitor’s.

For the first time expanding on his intentions going forward, Schwartz said that with DOI, his investigators will be “looking at the organizational issues here to see if there were mistakes made, if communications were done properly and what needs to be fixed.”

“It’s essential to learn what happened and how it happened,” he added. “It’s not just a search to blame someone and see who didn’t do their job, but solving that one person is not going to solve the larger problem.” 

Schwartz noted that there are “a number of inquiries taking place.” On Friday, just after the city’s announcement that the original test results were wrong, City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, Councilmember Gale Brewer (D-Manhattan), chair of the Council’s investigations committee, Carlina Rivera (D-Manhattan), and Alexa Aviles (D-Brooklyn), chair of the public housing committee, announced they plan a public hearing on what happened.

Schwartz also revealed that U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-Brooklyn/Queens/Manhattan), had asked him to oversee the environmental vendors NYCHA is using at Riis going forward. He agreed to do that.

“There are still lots of questions to ask,” he said.  Referring to his conversation with Riis’ Tenant Association president Williams, Schwartz spelled out the importance of getting to the bottom of what happened in the week after Labor Day at the Riis Houses. 

“The concern I could hear in her voice, the concern that she’s had for her residents, for what they’ve been put through,” he said. “We need to make sure that something like this doesn’t happen again.”