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A Call for ‘Drastic Change’ as NYCHA Contractor Woes Stymie Crucial COVID Ventilation Efforts

NYCHA installed a ventilation fan on the roof of a Wald Houses building, Aug. 19, 2020.
NYCHA installed a ventilation fan on the roof of a Wald Houses building, Aug. 19, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The chair of the City Council’s public housing committee Wednesday called for “drastic change” to the way NYCHA hires contractors after THE CITY revealed the bungled hiring of a vendor to help fix poorly ventilated public housing apartments.

THE CITY reported this week that NYCHA’s effort to install new roof fans in buildings across New York was far behind schedule as tenants face a potential second wave of coronavirus when the weather gets colder.

The authority’s ambitious plan to install 10,000 roof fans by June 30, 2021, is now in limbo after NYCHA officials learned that Green Builders Group, the main vendor hired to do the work, had a history of alleged safety and financial problems.

The problems surfaced following an examination by the city Department of Investigation (DOI) after NYCHA already enlisted Green Builders in the dual battles against mold and COVID-19.

“At this point there has to be a drastic change in how NYCHA and the city of New York and even the state in how they review contractors they allow to work in NYCHA apartments,” said Alicka Ampry-Samuel (D-Brooklyn), chair of the Council’s public housing committee.

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

“There should be a full vetting team” when hiring vendors, she said. “It should be a full team to make sure that Green Builders is an appropriate company to work with. Clearly, if you had a full team reviewing this, we would not be talking about this. Green Builders would never have been hired.”

She called NYCHA’s claim that it will install 10,000 fans by June 30 “impossible.” To date, only three fans have been put into place across NYCHA’s 316 developments.

Ampry-Samuel, whose Brownsville district is home to thousands of tenants in multiple public housing complexes, told THE CITY she’s considering questioning NYCHA officials about their procurement practices during a hearing she’d scheduled for September on other issues.

‘News to Me’

The revelation of DOI’s findings regarding Green Builders came as a surprise to Ampry-Samuel.

Since the pandemic arrived in March, NYCHA representatives have repeatedly assured her and other elected officials that they’re on top of the effort to improve ventilation in apartments with the aim of limiting the spread of the virus during a potential second wave.

Between March and mid-May, 7,818 of NYCHA’s 382,000 residents tested positive for COVID-19. Some 1,241 deaths in NYCHA have been attributed to COVID-19 or are “likely COVID-19,” city health officials have said.

“We’ve been asking about ventilation during the entire COVID process,” Ampry-Samuel said. “We’ve been told nothing is on hold, that they’ve been continuing to move forward because this is a priority. I had no idea there was a [DOI] investigation going on. Everything in your article was news to me.”

The fan fix-up has been behind from the start.

As part of a 2013 court settlement, NYCHA had agreed to combat its pervasive mold problem, a dangerous condition for tenants with asthma and other respiratory problems.

A note in a Wald Houses building touches upon health concerns of residents, Aug. 19, 2020.
A note in a Wald Houses building touches upon health concerns of residents.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

NYCHA initially promised to improve air circulation by fixing every malfunctioning roof fan across its 316 developments by May 2019. The authority failed to make that deadline — then changed plans, vowing to replace the fans instead.

Last fall, NYCHA hired one contractor, Sahara Construction. But as of this week, Sahara had installed only three fans at one development.

A No-Bid Deal

NYCHA officials say they’ve experienced difficulty finding other vendors to do the work, and dropped the usual competitive bidding process, moving to hire contractors on a no-bid basis. Last month, NYCHA awarded Green Builders Group New York LLC of Brooklyn a $10.4 million “emergency” contract to install thousands of fans citywide.

Days after Green Builders was hired, however, the federal monitor overseeing NYCHA red-flagged issues with the company. The city Department of Investigation then found multiple safety and financial problems.

That included a lawsuit alleging the company’s workers had accidentally started a roof fire in a Bronx residential building, and another suit alleging the firm had defaulted on a $500,000 bank loan. Investigators also concluded Green Builders had inflated its revenue stream when bidding for the job, according to an internal DOI report obtained by THE CITY.

The federal monitor, Bart Schwartz, is now looking into how Green Builders was hired after NYCHA had rejected the firm in an earlier bid after determining it didn’t have enough prior experience to handle a job of that size, sources familiar with the matter told THE CITY.

As a result, Green Builders has yet to install a single fan and NYCHA is now demanding that the company explain its track record.

About 65% of NYCHA’s 170,000 apartments rely on mechanical ventilation systems employing roof fans to draw air out of bathrooms and kitchens in buildings that date to the 1950s and 1960s. Many of the mechanisms are broken and the vents are often clogged with decades of dust.

Mold Problems Persist

So far, only three fans have been installed, all at the Lillian Wald Houses in the East Village. Barbara Brancaccio, NYCHA spokesperson, described the work as a “pilot project” that began in May “to evaluate the effectiveness of the upgraded systems.”

She said workers installed fans of varying sizes and that “while this pilot has not concluded, we have already determined that the fan model that is one size up from our current model resulted in a notable increase in air flow.”

The Wald Houses in the East Village, Aug. 14, 2020.
The Wald Houses in the East Village
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

On Wednesday, several tenants at Wald said they were unaware of the project, but noted longstanding problems with mold building up in their bathrooms.

Charmaine Mair, 58, said two weeks ago NYCHA workers arrived and scrubbed down her bathroom ceiling to remove a nasty swatch of black mold. She said she has to leave her bathroom window open all the time — even in winter — to keep the moisture from building up.

“I always have the bathroom window open,” she said. “I have to.”

Mary Monroe, 70, has the same issue. “If I don’t leave it [a window] open, my bathroom gets all molded up,” she said, recalling that about a year ago the mold grew anyway and a NYCHA crew showed up with cleaning supplies.

“They sprayed it,” she said, pointing to her bathroom ceiling. “You see? It’s come back a little.”

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