by Jon Guze
Senior Fellow, Legal Studies, John Locke Foundation
Yesterday, the New York Times reported that, “For at least two decades, the New York City Housing Authority routinely disputed tests that revealed lead in its apartments. Private landlords almost never do this.” The story starts with a single poignant example of how the Housing Authority has been mistreating its tenants:
Mikaila Bonaparte has spent her entire life under the roof of the New York City Housing Authority, the oldest and largest public housing system in the country, where as a toddler she nibbled on paint chips that flaked to the floor. In the summer of 2016, when she was not quite 3 years old, a test by her doctor showed she had lead in her blood at levels rarely seen in modern New York.
A retest two days later revealed an even higher level, one more commonly found in factory or construction workers and, in some cases, enough to cause irreversible brain damage.
Within two weeks, a city health inspector visited the two Brooklyn public housing apartments where Mikaila spent her time — her mother’s in the Tompkins Houses; her grandmother’s in the Gowanus Houses — to look for the source of the lead exposure, records show. The inspector, wielding a hand-held device that can detect lead through multiple layers of paint, found the dangerous heavy metal in both homes. The Health Department ordered the Housing Authority to fix the problems.
The discovery spurred the Housing Authority to action: It challenged the results.
Rather than remove or cover the lead, the Housing Authority dispatched its own inspector who used a different test, documents show. The agency insisted that however Mikaila was poisoned, there was no lead in her apartments.
The story goes no to note that this was part of the Housing Authority’s long-term, consistent policy:
Entrusted as the landlord to 400,000 people, the Housing Authority has struggled for years to fulfill its mission . … Last week, a judge suggested strongly that the federal government should take over the agency after an investigation found evidence of deep mismanagement, including that the Housing Authority failed to perform lead inspections and then falsely claimed it had. Six top executives lost their jobs amid the federal investigation.
Surprisingly, (this is the New York Times, remember), the story makes a point of comparing the Housing Authority’s performance with the performance of private landlords (I’ve highlighted the surprising passages in bold):
For at least two decades, almost every time a child in its apartments tested positive for high lead levels, [the Housing Authority] launched a counteroffensive, city records show. From 2010 through July of this year, the agency challenged 95 percent of the orders it received from the Health Department to remove lead detected in Nycha apartments.
Private landlords almost never contest a finding of lead; they did so in only 4 percent of the 5,000 orders they received over the same period, records show. …
The goal in challenging the Health Department’s findings … was to shield the city from lawsuits by showing that the high lead levels in these children came from somewhere other than the home where they lived and played, officials said. …
The Housing Authority cannot say precisely when it began challenging the city’s own findings of lead. Staffers recalled that the practice dates at least to the late 1990s, Jasmine Blake, an authority spokeswoman, wrote in an emailed statement.
It continued until September when [after a “sprawling federal investigation” and a number of lawsuits] the de Blasio administration reversed course. …
“We are now in a posture of not contesting,” Mr. Brezenoff said. …
It was a lesson private landlords learned years ago. “There’s a concern and a fear on the part of the owners about liability. They just do it,” said Frank Ricci, director of government affairs for the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents residential building owners. “The landlord calls a certified contractor to come and correct the condition wherever D.O.H. has designated they’ve found lead.”
And what about poor little Mikaila? The Times reports that:
In the late summer of 2016, as the city scrambled to reinspect apartments for lead paint hazards, Mikaila’s blood lead level hit 37 micrograms per deciliter, nearly eight times the amount that prompts Health Department action….
Mikaila’s family said she was still not herself, by turns lethargic and hyperactive. Occasionally, said her grandmother, Ordeen Broomes, she wailed with discomfort. A third blood test in late September 2016 showed she still had very high levels of lead.
So the Health Department returned to both apartments and again found lead, according to city records, this time in dust on the floor. At this point, the Housing Authority relented. Workers came with a bucket of cleanser and a special vacuum to suck up the dust. …
But no one looked for the source of the lead-riddled dust, according to city records reviewed by The Times. The Housing Authority declined to comment on Mikaila’s case, citing the pending litigation. …
Max Costa, a professor and chairman of environmental medicine at New York University School of Medicine, [said] her experience is “going to totally affect her life, and there’s no way you can reverse it.” The family’s observations are consistent with those effects, Mr. Costa said.
Ms. Broomes, who works for the Parks Department, wants to get her family out of public housing. But it is a struggle. … [S]he said … saving money for a private apartment or a house was difficult.
As she spoke, Mikaila, sitting beside her, arched her eyebrows at the thought of a house.
“I want stairs for my room,” Mikaila said. “I want stairs so I can go up the stairs so I can go to my room. I want to get a back garden and I want to plant some seeds.”
Most of us, I’m sure, hope Mikaila gets her wish, but not “democratic socialists” like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. If they get their way, privately owned and operated housing will be even harder to come by, which would be bad news for Mikaila and all the other children currently living in buildings operated by the New York Housing Authority and similar socialist agencies around the country.