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,” nyc.gov/nycha/assets/nycha/downloads/pdf/nycha-tenant-handbook-2014.pdf, 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.