Designed in Oppression: The History of NYC Public Housing Mirrors Current Poor Conditions

“‘I would cough so bad, ooh, it feels like I’m going to throw up…sometimes I couldn’t breathe so bad I thought I might die.’”[i] These are the words of Sadi Fontana, a seven-year old living in a sixth-story public housing unit in Harlem. He has asthma, as do many of New York City’s 400,000 public housing residents.[ii] The disease has, indeed, become an epidemic across the country, but particularly in urban areas. Within New York, Harlem and the South Bronx have the highest concentrations of childhood asthma.[iii] Asthma has symptoms like those Sadi describes — shortness of breath, wheezing, nausea, headaches.

In a class action suit filed in 2013, Upper Manhattan Together, inc. and South Bronx Churches, Inc. claim the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) is responsible for the epidemic. Their suit asserts high levels of mold in housing projects cause asthma.[iv] But is this asthma epidemic and the mold that causes it an incidence of environmental justice, or simply a result of unfortunate living conditions? To determine whether that is the case for Upper New York City, one must first look at the history of Public Housing in New York to understand the system that the plaintiffs in this case claim is responsible for their illness.

When urban rehabilitation programs began in the 1950s, NYCHA built public housing units hastily. They were poorly constructed, high-rise buildings often separated from other neighborhoods and devoid of public amenities.[v] Many of the original public housing units of the twentieth century have been updated and re-built in “attractive town homes and apartment buildings”[vi] However, developments in Harlem and the South Bronx, like Webster Morrisania, Rangel, and Drew-Hamilton, remain high-rise.[vii] The implications of high-rise public housing are actually quite dire. In other words, if neighborhoods are mixed-income, they will be more economically successful and contain better resources. Now, a high-rise unit does the opposite. Not only does it segregate its residents, but it does not attract any higher-income residents. With that, very few businesses and public services will come to the area, and the residents are left with “inequality not just in housing but in all aspects of social and economic life.”[viii]

New Yorkers still live in these sub-standard housing units, and so the communities of NYC housing projects are, given the history of public housing and no fault of their own, subjected to harsher living standards than other communities. Furthermore, the housing communities created during the 1950s were strictly segregated, and exhibition of institutional racism.[ix]

The implications of this inequality are not just economic, but also racial: the populations of the South Bronx and Harlem are 52% Latino and 35% black.[x] Proportionally, the Bronx is home to almost three times as many immigrants as the United States as a whole.[xi] More than half of (Bronx?) residents speak a language other than English, and the average household income is almost $20,000 below the national average.[xii] Research shows a link between all public housing and poor living conditions. Tenant selection policies traditionally skewed public housing to the lowest possible income bracket, creating risk of disease, “chronic joblessness,” and illegal activity in those housing developments.[xiii] Furthermore, the voucher system for entering public housing has little guidance and leaves families of color in the worst possible neighborhoods,[xiv] in which the housing is often in disrepair and run-down condition at the hands of negligent landlords.[xv] Housing in the South Bronx and Harlem fits these patterns, and in the case of mold and asthma, the negligent landlord is NYCHA.

Immigrants, of which there are many in the Bronx, fare particularly poorly. Public housing conditions in immigrant-populated areas are shown to have the worst possible housing conditions available and worsen over time. Patterns of immigration almost necessarily ensure poor housing conditions under the current system. Afro-Latino residents have housing worse than non-hispanic blacks.[xvi] The segregationist history of public housing persists today, in that the very communities that make up the South Bronx and Harlem are those subject to the worst overall housing conditions, with little hope of escaping them (housing conditions are proven in communities of color to worsen with time and generations[xvii]).

Damp, moldy housing conditions in NYCHA housing are today made worse by negligent processes of fixing those problems.

Mold, which is common in NYCHA housing, exacerbates asthma symptoms, and what’s more NYCHA is aware of this connection and makes note of it in its “A Home to be Proud of” publication.[xviii] Furthermore, the agency put off or ignored mold-related maintenance requests for long periods of time, claiming they had lost them.[xix] When NYCHA did respond to complaints, though, their process was flawed: the agency’s mold policy notes that water damage is the underlying cause, but requires only a visual assessment by a maintenance staff to assess mold growth. This visual assessment cannot account for all sources of mold in an apartment.[xx] Presence of a plumber was never required, and there were no limits on the toxic chemicals used inside apartments to eliminate mold.[xxi] Not only did NYCHA often fail to respond to mold complaints, but when they did the staff members disregarded residents’ safety.

Oscar Cruz, a resident of Webster Morrisania Houses in the South Bronx, described his personal experience with NYCHA’s dangerous mold response practices to a reporter at “[NYCHA] said the problem was a neighbor’s bathroom wall and they fixed that. On May 22, housing came and spread a chemical in the bathroom to kill the mold. I told them I guarantee you this is not going to solve the problem. Today (July 3), the mold came back.”[xxii] Often, though, the repairs wouldn’t even involve identifying a cause, and instead maintenance staff would simply paint over the walls and tell residents the problem was solved.[xxiii]

Not only are residents forced to live with mold on their walls and ever-present danger of asthma, but they are subject to poor practices on the part of NYCHA.

The neighborhoods involved in this lawsuit are certainly a part of the legacy of systematic segregation in this country, as seen in part in the foundations of public housing policy and infrastructure. Decreased access to public amenities, like healthcare or access to legal aid are a direct result of the segregationist high-rise housing system with its roots in a racist American past. Residents of housing projects in upper NYC are subject, not of their own doing, to not only the negligence of NYCHA and molding walls,[xxiv] but also the dangers of other environmental hazards in the surrounding area, like dangerous waste management facilities and diesel fuel busses.[xxv]

Yet in the home, where the poor conditions are a vestige of racist policy and patterns, NYCHA residents are blamed for poor management of their health. The very New York Times article that quoted Sadi, the 7-year-old, later stated condescendingly that “with some families, it becomes a matter of simply teaching them how to clean house.”[xxvi] Furthermore, solutions place burden on individual families to “keeping house” well.[xxvii] Does this type of policy not underscore the manner in which these communities are marginalized? Even when the hardship of residents’ public housing realities are exposed, powerful institutions still blame the residents themselves. The class-action lawsuit of two years ago demonstrates that marginalized communities often have to be their own advocates, as they are the only ones aware of the injustices with which they live.

Document Endnotes:

Rangel High-Rise

Rangel High-Rise

Morrisania High Rise

Morrisania High Rise

Drew-Hamilton High Rise

Drew-Hamilton High Rise

[i] Richard Perez-Pena. “Childhood Asthma Project Reaches Out In Harlem,” New York Times, May 01, 2003.

[ii] New York Times Editorial Board. “To Save New York’s Public Housing: [Editorial],” New York Times, May 26, 2015.

[iii]Mireya Navarro. “Facing Suit, City Agrees to Remove Mold in Public Housing More Quickly, New York Times, December 15, 2013.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid, 249.

[vi] Margery Austin Turner, Susan J. Popkin, and Lynette Rawlings, Public Housing and the Legacy of Segregation. (Washington: The Urban Institute Press, 2009) p. 9

[vii] Peter Marcuse,

[viii] Emily Rosenbaum and Samantha Friedman, The Housing Divide: How Generations of Immigrants Fare in New York’s Housing Market. (New York: University Press, 2007). p. 129

[ix] Ibid, 246.

[x] Natasha Lightfoot, “A transnational sense of “home”: twentieth-century West Indian immigration and institution building in the Bronx.” Afro Americans in New York Life and History, 33.2, July 2009. Expanded Academic Asap.

Mario A. Gonzalez-Corzo and Vassilios N. Gargalas, “The Bronx today: a comparative socioeconomic profile.” The Journal of Latino-Latin American Studies, 4.2 Fall 2012. Expanded Academic ASAP.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Turner et at., p. 5

[xiv] Ibid, 87.

[xv] Ibid, 5.

[xvi] Ibid, 148.

[xvii] Ibid. 180)

[xviii] Baez v NYCHA, p. 15

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Ibid, p. 16

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Ken Thorbourne. “Groups Prod NYCHA to Keep Promises on Mold,” July 15, 2014.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] National Resource Defense Council, “Rampant Mold & Moisture Problems in NYC Public Housing,”

[xxv] Julie Sze, Noxious New York: The Racial Politics of Urban Health and Environmental Justice. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008). Chapter 8.

[xxvi] Perez-Pena

[xxvii] Ibid.

Tireless Accountability: Legal Justice for NYCHA Residents Suffering from Asthma in Unsafe Homes

In December 2013, residents of NYC public housing teamed up with two NGOs, Manhattan Together and South Bronx Churches (both of whom specialize in community organizing and advocacy)[i], as well as the National Resources Defense Council. Together, these parties filed a class-action lawsuit against the New York Public Housing Authority (NYCHA) in a New York District Court for excessive mold in residential cases. The case, Baez et. al v NYCHA, shows that the legal system, can, in some cases, provide forms of justice. However, in its framing of the plaintiffs’ hardship, this case fails to acknowledge NYCHA’s role in actively disabling residents with asthma, and instead suggests that NYCHA simply compounding a pre-existing disability with negligence.

Filing, Facts, and Framework of the Case

The complaint against NYCHA describes the relevant class as “current and future residents of NYCHA who have asthma that substantially limits a major life activity and who have mold and/or excessive moisture in their NYCHA housing.”[ii] The NYCHA residents are doing something intentional and powerful in filing the suit this way. Firstly, there are practical reasons that the NRDC lawyers wouldn’t have filed as a class-action suit. The court documents note that it would be impossible to directly represent all members of the class, because there are over 400,000 NYCHA residents.[iii] Attempting to litigate each claim against NYCHA would take resources that plaintiffs do not have and would overwhelm the court system. More importantly, there is political significance to filing as a class. The named plaintiffs of the case, Maribel Baez, Felipa Cruz, and A.S. are not simply seeking reparations for their own bad experiences. Instead they want justice all people affected by NYCHA’s negligence. The complaint they filed is a moment in which disadvantaged citizens come together for justice and subsequently call to upend the organization in power.

Also notable is that Baez v NYCHA was filed as an injunction, meaning the plaintiffs were seeking procedural chances in NYCHA’s “policies and practices” on responses to complaints on mold and moisture. Their explicit demand was that NYCHA make “reasonable accommodations and modifications…to effectively abate mold and moisture in their apartments, which exacerbate [residents’] asthma symptoms.”[iv] While in any cases, monetary damages are indeed an effective way of helping victims of environmental injustice regain their social mobility, that is not what the plaintiffs wanted. Financial compensation cannot ever truly make up for harm done. Certainly, a payout would make these specific plaintiff’s lives easier, but how should the judge go about measuring how much to pay a person for a lifetime of chronic illness? Furthermore, damages represent a halting of justice: NYCHA would be off the hook once they paid out. The case filed against NYCHA in 2013 clearly shows that the plaintiffs are looking to the future to help alleviate the danger of living with asthma in poorly maintained public housing.

The legal statutes that the NDRC lawyers use to prove the illegality of NYCHA’s negligence make clear that this is a lawsuit about disability. There are four “statutory regulatory frameworks” used in support of the public housing tenants: the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (FHAA), and the New York Human Rights Law.[v] Together they help to claim that NYCHA has violated its tenants’ rights as people with disabilities (asthma).

The Rehabilitation Act helps to make clear that asthma is disability, by defining disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits…breathing, sleeping, working, concentrating, [or] the operating of major bodily symptoms.”[vi] Asthma interferes with all five. (However the company’s disability accommodations policy deals only with wheelchair accessibility and makes not mention of any other kind of impairment.)[vii]

Title II of the ADA prevents government agencies from excluding impaired individuals from public resources and also mandates that they make appropriate and accommodating policy changes.[viii] The plaintiffs claim NYCHA indeed excludes them by failing to have separate maintenance standards for homes of asthmatic tenants.[ix] The FHAA helps to specify the legal framework for this case because it makes it illegal to discriminate in the sale or rental of housing against individuals with handicaps.[x] While the ADA serves to prove NYCHA’s negligence, it presupposes that residents came into these homes already with asthma. It penalizes NYCHA for failing to maintain maintenance standards, but only for the purposes of alleviating a preexisting condition. Similarly, the FHAA only mandates that NYCHA not discriminate, but the lawsuit makes no effort to suggest that NYCHA might be the cause of this ‘handicap.’

By incorporating the Human Rights Law, the lawyers strengthen their position further. This law makes clear that the state of New York has shown that it wants “to assure that every individual…is afforded an equal opportunity to enjoy a full and productive life…[F]ailure to provide such equal opportunity…menaces the institutions and foundation of a free democratic state and threatens the peace.”[xi] The inclusion of this law in the court documents raises the stakes. “Human Rights” is a phrase with far-reaching connotations. Human Rights Violations bring to mind Aparthaid, human trafficking, conditions of people in North Korea. Grouping the treatment of NYCHA residents in this semantic category proves and elevates the injustice. Similarly, the phrasing of the law itself (“menaces…a free democratic state”) makes clear that the actions of NYCHA in discriminating against disabled people have broad implications for the strength of the American government and democracy. What NYCHA might prefer to pass off as a case-by-case mold issue now presents as an institutional threat to functional democracy.

Anecdotal Testimony

This case was also an effective platform for residents’ testimony, because their personal experiences helped to prove NYCHA’s disability-based discrimination. The case is brought on behalf of a whole class, but three individuals, Maribel Baez, Felipa Cruz, and A.S., serve to represent so many New Yorker’s stories with their testimony in this complaint.

The testimony of Maribel Baez is the most thorough and compelling; here it is in part:

“11. On December 18, 2012, through my lawyers, I wrote to Office of Equal Opportunity. The letter informed NYCHA that I have asthma, that my asthma substantially limits my breathing, and the letter described the wet and moldy conditions in my apartment. The letter stated that there is a scientific link between mold and excess moisture and worsening of asthma The letter involved my rights under disability rights laws asked NYCHA to modify its repair and mold remediation policies and procedures as a reasonable accommodation and reasonable modification for my asthma so that I could live in an apartment free of excessive mold and moisture. The letter identified the specific modifications in policies and procedures that was requesting…

“15. NYCHA has not provided me with these accommodations and modifications.”[xii]

Baez’ Testimony upholds so many of the plaintiffs allegations of NYCHA discrimination against disabled residents. Her case exemplifies the agency’s negligence in responding to her complaint, thereby denying her — a disabled person — fair and equal access to housing. Without the legal framework of the ADA and FHAA, etc., in place, Baez’ and others’ testimonies might not be so directly linked to NYCHA’s illegal discrimination, not just negligence. The statutory framework helps to make clear that there are patterns of negligence that add up to institutional discrimination. Baez’ testimony makes clear those negligent practices.


Results of the Settlement

In December 2013, Judge William Pauley III, for the Southern New York District Court, found in favor of the plaintiffs. He mandated in a written settlement that NYCHA improve its responses to mold and moisture complaints. They were now required to respond to flooding within 24 hours, and normal mold/moisture complaints within seven days.[xiii] Judge Pauley also declared that the cause of mold be identified and fixed in every instance.[xiv] Though the settlement requires that NYCHA train its staff and change its policies, it leaves the agency only partially accountable for adhering to the new mandates. The Judge proposed a quarterly reporting system, in which the Housing Authority would send in a report of its responses to complaints in that period.[xv] Unfortunately, that system was insufficient. NYCHA’s discrimination only continued after December of 2013. Escalating headlines make that clear:

July 15, 2014: “Groups Prod NYCHA to Keep Promises on Mold”[xvi]

December 14, 2014: “Mold Still a Growing Problem for Hundreds of NYCHA Tenants a Year After Promise of Fixes”[xvii]

December 21, 2014: “1 in 3 city Housing Authority tenants say mold returns after NYCHA claims it’s fixed”[xviii]

March 14, 2015: “NYCHA not obeying order to fix mold in hundreds of units, tenants’ lawyers say”[xix]

April 23, 2015: “Tenants want judge to force NYCHA to clean up mold at public housing”[xx]

A Second Motion

In March of 2015, lawyers from the National Resources Defense Council, who had teamed up with public housing tenants and represented them a year and a half earlier decided to file a motion to enforce their previous settlement, the mandates of which NYCHA was not carrying out. Even after NYCHA was required to fix its procedures, Blanche Moore, who lives in public housing in East Harlem, said, “They just came and painted over [the mold]. They said to keep the [bathroom] vent…cleared out.”[xxi] The city’s own comptroller even admitted that the agency is “woefully unprepared” to deal with such large-scale home damage.[xxii]

Public outcry was widespread and forceful, as one video of a protest shows. Churches and NGOs banded together. Scores of residents hold sings and chant, as various people stand at a podium to deliver fiery speeches against NYCHA.

In response to the requests from the plaintiffs, in December 2015, Judge Pauley released a new order for NYCHA. He appointed a special master to oversee the agency’s response to complaints of mold. The master is an authority appointed to enforce the Judge’s previous ruling. The agency, in the court’s eyes, had failed to uphold promises from the previous case. Not only were many reports late,[xxiii] but they devised a complex “parent” and “child” reporting process that, in effect, lengthened the amount of time for repairs. Judge Pauley also notes anecdotal evidence from plaintiffs in the class who report negligence much like Blanche Moore did. He is harsh and direct, stating that NYCHAs actions “jeopardize the health and welfare of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers.”[xxiv] 

Implications of the Case

Only four months have passed since Judge Pauley appointed the special master to enforce better repair pracices. While the pressure on and surveillance of NYCHA will now be heightened, there is no way of telling whether their policies will change. There are many instances in which the legal system is completely ineffective in remediating EJ claims — government agencies and corporations often have the power to out-litigate citizens. Here, however, this community was able to organize, to see their injustice in a larger context, and the current setup of the legal system was able to help them. But at what cost?

The way that the case talks about disability is worth examining. The statutory frameworks in place speaks of disability as something that inherently exists within certain people — it is a constant that an agency must work around in policy and practice. The legal documents mention the ways in which mold and moisture worsen the pre-existing disability of asthma, but do not state or even allude to how NYCHA itself is actively disabling these people. There is a difference between physical impairment and socially constructed barriers — “disability.” The former is an ailment, while the second is the social burden placed upon groups with those ailments. While this legal framework does much for current and future residents’ living conditions, it does little to reframe the politics of disability. It does little to help these residents reclaim their disabled identity as something that shouldn’t be stigmatized. The lawsuit also serves to continue the narrative of individual experience, by assuming that asthmatic residents have somehow always been that way on their own. It ignores the structural causes of disability.

Perhaps that is not the job of a case like this. Perhaps all that can and should be done is to alleviate the health burdens of these plaintiffs and hold an agency accountable for that burden. A more complex theoretical analysis is necessary for critiquing this case as a model of justice, but that analysis is a privilege not available to those who are simply struggling to breathe in their homes. Even with this lawsuit settled, residents of NYCHA housing are still reliant on that agency to fix their homes. While they were able to reclaim some power within the legal system, the general organization of the agency controlling their welfare remains intact. Progress in cases like this is always slow, but may we not forget to keep pushing the limits of how our legal system and government agencies operate.


Document Endnotes

[i] South Bronx Churches., copyright 2012. Manhattan Together,, copyright 2015.

[ii] Ibid. p. 22

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Baez v NYCHA p. 1

[v] Baez v NYCHA, p. 8, 10, 12, 13

[vi] Ibid. p. 12

[vii] Ibid, p. 18

[viii] Baez v NYCHA p. 8

[ix] Ibid. p. 18

[x] Ibid. p. 12,13

[xi] Ibid, p. 13,14

[xii] Baez et. al v New York City Housing Authority 13 cv 08916 WHP, case document 2-2 filed 12/18/13

[xiii] Baez et. al v New York City Housing Authority 13 cv 08916 WHP, “Stipulation and Order of Settlement” p.3

[xiv] Ibid. p. 5

[xv] Ibid. p. 7

[xvi] Ken Thorbourne. “Groups Prod NYCHA to Keep Promises on Mold,” July 15, 2014.

[xvii] Allegra Abramo, Gwyne Hogan, Greg B. Smith. “Mold still a growing problem for hundreds of NYCHA tenants a year after promise of fixes,” New York Daily News. December 14, 2014

[xviii] Greg B. Smith. “1 in 3 city Housing Authority tenants say mold returns after NYCHA claims it’s fixed,” New York Daily News. December 21, 2014.

[xix] Greg B. Smith. “NYCHA not obeying order to fix mold in hundreds of units, tenants’ lawyers say,” New York Daily News. March 14, 2015.

[xx] Greg B. Smith, “Tenants want judge to force NYCHA to clean up mold at public housing,” New York Daily News. April 23, 2015.

[xxi]Ken Thorbourne. “Groups Prod NYCHA …”

[xxii] Adam Klasfeld “Bad Day for NYC Public Housing Agency,” Courthouse News, December 15, 2015

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Baez et. al v New York City Housing Authority 13 cv 08916 WHP, Decided 15 Dec 2015

Burdened and Re-Burdened: NYCA’s Framing of Mold in Public Houses Only Puts More Pressure on Residents to Fix the Problem Themselves

The New York City government’s negligence toward asthma in the Bronx seems grotesque given the scale of the epidemic — 1,412 public housing households in NYC have a member with asthma.[i] NYCHA used the role of individual experience to claim that mold problems were localized and to avoid culpability. This small-scale focus, however, does not imply justice, but rather is the means by which NYCHA maintained structural discrimination. NYCHA’s negligence to repair homes is dangerous, given that children in public housing are three times more likely to have asthma than children in private housing.[ii] The state, though, frames solutions to mold as lying in the hands of individual actions. This places excess burden onto residents instead of re-apportioning funds to better the structure of NYC housing projects.


NYCHA Uses “Expert” Data to Prove that the Burden Should Fall to Residents

Research on asthma shows a clear scientific link between housing conditions and the debilitating disease, but this research makes little mention of how public housing agencies maintain conditions that exacerbate asthma. The New York section of the 2010 “National Asthma Survey” shows that “households having a member with asthma are more likely to report the presence of mold in their home,”[iii] and this finding holds not just in New York, but in a cross section of 18 different countries.[iv] This type of research is what could easily be categorized as “expert” data. Carried out by the Association of Schools of Public Health and peer-reviewed in a long-standing academic journal, it is this type of study that is normally upheld as a standard of knowledge. The study took data from households not just on the presence of mold, but also on families’ use of different types of appliances, like electric or gas stoves, and the degrees to which they use ventilation.[v] The study draws clear correlations between housekeeping and asthma. The study centers itself around the individual practices and choices of families, not the failings of a building they might be live in. Unfortunately, the study’s skewed focus has real-world implications for citizen health. Even the way in which scientific studies on asthma in New York fail to address ways in which individual low-income families might not be responsible, but instead, their landlord: the government of New York.

It is easy to see the ways in which this science becomes flawed public policy. For instance, in the NYCHA pamphlet entitled, “A Home to be Proud of,” which contains sections on how to vacuum, and how often to clean, the housing authority delineates a set of instructions for dealing with “Potential Hazards.”[vi] In the “Mold” section, they list twelve instructions, including: “move furniture away from walls,” “keep your bathroom windows open,” “keep your apartment clean, dry, and free of clutter,” “use your stove only for cooking, never heating,”[vii] and “dry all wet surfaces.”[viii] Each of these instructions places the onus of mold removal and prevention on residents. Nevermind that as low-income residents, they might be overworked and dealing with poverty and racism (all health concerns in and of themselves),[ix] they are still expected to keep a home they are “proud of.” Furthermore, criteria of these instructions match up almost directly with the categories analyzed in the National Asthma Survey. Of course, the similarity in criteria could be a coincidence. But it is suggestive that both the survey and the pamphlet cite individual households as responsible for asthma.

Not surprisingly, “A Home to be Proud of”’s instructions have not eliminated mold or asthma, nor has the NYCHA confronted the task of renovating and repairing homes with excessive moisture. A 2003 article in The New York Post notes that “Mold complaints to the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development increased from about 590 a month last year to 670 a month this year.”[x] This number applies to NYCHA housing. Clearly, mold has increasing for at least a decade.


Residents Know NYCHA is Negligent

In 2012, Palema, a mother living in the Jackson Houses, a project in Queens, said that “Not since 1998 have they ever come to fix the mold…we gave up.”[xi] Not only is the NYCHA slow to mold in units, the organization also fails to track the number of mold complaints among their 334 buildings.[xii] Before Bill de Blasio was mayor, he headed the Housing and Urban Development Office. In comments about NYCHA, de Blasio noted that he was “stunned by NYCHA’s inability to handle routine repair complaints without waits of more than a year.”[xiii]

Residents of public housing depend on the NYCHA for their quality of life and health. The agencies in charge of that health are able to be negligent because the basis of their scientific understanding of the problem blames the dependents.

In the 2013 lawsuit that resulted from this injustice, resident Maribel Baez gives her personal testimony:

“I, MARIBEL BAEZ, declare under penalty of perjury that the foregoing is true and correct:…

“2. I live in New York City Housing Authority housing in New York City. I live with my two teenage sons.

“3. I have been diagnosed with asthma. I take three different medications to control my asthma.

“4. I have lived in my current apartment, which is in the Bronx, for 7 years.

“5. The apartment provided to me by NYCHA has one bathroom, which does not have any windows.

“6. For over six years, water has been seeping into the bathroom through the ceiling. The seepage has caused water damage and mold growth. The walls in my bathroom are wet. The mold growth is visible.

“7. On numerous occasions, I called NYCHA to notify them of the water damage and mold growth in the bathroom.

“8. In response to my complaints, in approximately August 2012, NYCHA replaced the bathroom walls with finished wallboard. NYCHA also plastered and repainted the bathroom ceiling, but did not address the underlying cause of the leaks and moisture.

“9. I was present in the apartment when this work was performed. None of the NYCHA staff who came to perform the work did any work on the plumbing after they removed and replaced the walls. To my knowledge, none of the staff who did the work were plumbers.

“10. Within a month after NYCHA performed the work, mold growth was visible in the bathroom again, and the bathroom walls and ceiling were wet.”[xv]

Baez’ testimony highlights NYCHA’s shortcomings in dealing with mold in their housing projects. While in her case, staff came in and did repairs instead of telling Ms. Baez to change her practices, their response was still inadequate. NYCHA denied her safe living conditions. By only fixing the walls they do not acknowledge in practice that the cause of the mold is poor plumbing, as Baez believes. When they do not fix the plumbing,             NYCHA leaves Baez no other option than to revert to the housekeeping solutions they put forward in literature. Thus while residents see the systemic root of the problem – inadequate responses to complaints worsens mold and places the onus on residents – NYCHA actively perpetuates it.


Individualization in Medical Care

The pattern of individualization continues when community members themselves try to seek medical attention. Asthma management is treated person-by person, not as a housing conditions issue. Thus many residents seek personal care in chaotic hospitals.[xvi] However insurance often cannot cover long-term care, and patients cannot visit doctors consistently.[xvii]

A man name Mr. Negron told The New York Times, “We’ve waited for hours and hours at hospitals…My daughter has records in every emergency room in Manhattan and the Bronx. I’m on welfare. I can’t work because it’s a full-time job just to deal with their asthma.”[xviii] Ms. Negron’s words are exasperated, fraught with the anxiety of being overworked to combat a disease most likely caused by the structure of her home. Once again, the burden of caring for asthma is transferred to the individual from the state, whose negligence aggravates the condition. Because short-term medical care, emergency measures, like fast-acting Albuterol, become New Yorkers’ main asthma treatment.[xix] The implication of fast-acting medication is that patients are forced into dealing with asthma attacks on an incident-by-incident basis, as opposed to as the chronic condition that it is.

Instead, they make asthma an issue of individual choice, which then worsens residents’ access to good healthcare. But perhaps individualization could be a remedy as well if used to the advantage of those suffering. In a settlement that took place just four months ago, residents gave testimony of their personal experiences with asthma and dealing with the NYCHA.[xx] Judge William Pauly of the NYC District Court ruled against the NYCHA. This ruling carries optimistic implications, not only for the environmental justice atrocities of Upper Manhattan and the Bronx, but also for citizens anywhere to destabilize the power structures around them. Despite the fact that the NYCHA has historically skirted responsibility by placing individualism at the core of the mold epidemic, residents have hope in turning that around. Perhaps, if framed correctly, personal narrative might be the very mechanism that undermines oppression.






Document Endnotes

Maribel Baez with her nephew

Maribel Baez with her nephew

Maribel Baez in her mold-covered bathroom holding her asthma medication

Maribel Baez in her mold-covered bathroom holding her asthma medication

[i] Nguyen, Trang, Melissa Lurie, Marta Gomez, Amanda Reddy, Kruti Pandya, and Michael Medvesky. 2010. “The National Asthma Survey—new York State: Association of the Home Environment with Current Asthma Status,” Public Health Reports (1974-) 125 (6). Association of Schools of Public Health: 877

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid, 883.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid, 884.

[vi]New York Public Housing Authority, “A Home to be Proud of,”, p. 37

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] New York Public Housing Authority, “A Home to be Proud of,” p. 37

[ix] Tina Rosenberg, “A Case for the Cure,” New York Times, Sunday Review: July 20, 2012.

[x] Sam Smith, “Fungus Among Us: Mold Growing Into Epidemic On City Walls,” New York Times, November 16, 2003.

[xi] Rich Schapiro, Dennis Slattery, and Larry McShane, “NYCHA’S GRAY MONSTER Residents live with mold that won’t die l Repairs aren’t made for months, or years or EVER!” New York Daily News, August 5, 2012

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Rich Schapiro, Dennis Slattery, and Larry McShane, “NYCHA’S GRAY MONSTER …”

[xiv] Allison Joyce in Greg B. Smith. “NYC Housing Authority to come under judicial oversight over mold in apartments” New York Daily News, December 16, 2013.

[xv] Baez et. al v New York City Housing Authority 13 cv 08916 WHP, case document 2-2 filed 12/18/13

[xvi] Korey Kilgannon, “Hero in a White Lab Coat at Ground Zero for Asthma,” New York Times, April 18, 2003.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] US District Court for the Southern District of New York, “MARIBEL BAEZ, et al, Plaintiffs, -against- NEW YORK CITY HOUSING AUTHORITY, Defendant,” December 15, 2015, Decided; December 15, 2015, Filed.