Mayor employs new weapon against NYCHA lead paint

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Living in public housing could soon be less lethal for young children.

Mayor Bill de Blasio launched the New York City Housing Authority’s new lead-based testing program April 15. For the first time ever, 135,000 apartments will be tested with portable X-ray fluorescence analyzers.

Above and beyond local and federal requirements, the effort seeks to determine the presence of lead paint and abate any hazards found in these units, which were built before 1978, when lead paint was banned at the federal level.

Testing, NYCHA officials say, is slated to be completed by the end of 2020.

The housing authority plans to prioritize developments with the highest population of children younger than 6, which is the age the city’s law recognizes as requiring landlords to conduct regular lead-based paint visual assessments. Testing reportedly began last week at Harlem River Houses between West 151st and West 153rd streets, before starting at seven other developments — including Marble Hill Houses — next week.

Residents are expected to learn about results for their own apartments once they’ve been inspected, the mayor’s office said, with NYCHA updating its testing information every two weeks.

The city already has driven down the number of kids exposed to lead by 90 percent, de Blasio said, in a release. “Now, we will finish the mission” to eradicate lead exposure. “This aggressive new testing plan will help make New York the healthiest, and fairest, big city in America.”

The plan is to really accelerate lead testing to ensure NYCHA is totally lead-free, so that residents are safe from lead-based hazards in their homes, Kathryn Garcia, interim chair and housing authority chief executive, added.

Along with Marble Hill, the first tranche of developments slated for testing are decidedly spread out. They include Williamsburg Houses and Red Hook West Houses, both in Brooklyn; Bronx River Houses at East 174th Street; Saint Nicholas Houses on Frederick Douglas Boulevard in Harlem; Johnson Houses on Lexington Avenue, in East Harlem; and Castle Hill Houses on Castle Hill Avenue, also in the Bronx.

Remaining developments’ testing dates, meanwhile, are expected to be announced in coming months.

de Blasio announced last summer the city and NYCHA would team up and “fully” test for the presence of lead-based paint in public housing apartments. By February, NYCHA announced it found seven contractors to tackle lead-based paint inspection services, coming in at an $88 million price tag. That should be enough to ensure inspection of between 5,000 and 7,000 apartments each month.

Beyond testing, these contractors also are tasked with identifying hazardous conditions detrimental to health and safety, the mayor’s office said. And, as part of the testing, the contractors also will perform annual visual assessments for all apartments built prior to 1978 that haven’t been previously cleared of lead-based paint, as required by the federal housing and urban development department. NYCHA will then correct any spotted “paint deficiencies.”

The testing initiative is a key component of LeadFreeNYC, which the mayor’s office describes as the city’s roadmap to totally wipe out childhood lead exposure. The plan’s approach is twofold — prevent exposure to lead hazards in the first place, and respond “quickly and comprehensively” if a child is discovered to have an elevated blood lead level.

To be certain, lead paint exposure — and the dire threat of poisoning NYCHA’s youngest residents — is just one among a litany of worries wracking residents like Evangelista Tronilo, who’s lived in her Marble Hill apartment at 5210 Broadway for nearly two decades. She claims she’s been plagued by perennial leaks causing her kitchen fixtures, bathroom ceiling and even bedroom walls to basically fall apart, and maintenance staff that takes literally years to even show up.

But at least knowing the city’s actively tackling the lead issue gives Tronilo some peace of mind, knowing her grandkids will be less at risk of poisoning when they visit her apartment.

Meanwhile, Marble Hill resident council president Tony Edwards affirmed de Blasio’s plan is a big step in the right direction, although he would’ve liked to see such a purportedly robust effort to snuff out lead poisoning way sooner.

“It’s always too late, man,” when NYCHA tackles problems, Edwards said. Inspectors showed up to check out the chipping paint in his own apartment not quite a year ago, and it was clear to them something probably needed to be done about it to minimize lead exposure risk.

It was a “telltale sign that the (badly chipping) paint on the wall actually had lead in it,” and that scraping and repainting the whole apartment, and other measures, ought to be in the works.

The mayor’s plan, as Edwards sees it, is “all well and good, but how fast will they rectify the problem?” And, still, he’s left wondering, “Why couldn’t they think about (a plan like this) beforehand?”

Not only would Edwards have liked to see it implemented much sooner, but there are crucial day-to-day practical concerns as well.

“It requires someone like myself to take a day off from work, for them to come see what is what” Edwards said. “I know it’s for my health, but it’s also an inconvenience for my daily life.”

Edwards wishes such inconveniences could be avoided, somehow.

“They should’ve gotten it right the first time” they inspected, he said, or even earlier. “People have complained about lead in the paint” for quite some time — including former Fort Independence Houses resident Tiesha Jones, who sued NYCHA after her daughter, Dakota Taylor, registered an elevated lead poisoning level. After a drawn out legal battle, she was awarded $58 million last year by a Bronx jury for NYCHA’s failure to inspect Jones’ apartment for lead paint as required.

But news of lead isn’t actually news, Edwards said, saying knowledge of the problem went all the way up to the top of NYCHA. But now at least, the mayor’s plan is “a good start.”

“But I believe (NYCHA officials) should have a better idea of what they want to do, and what they’re really looking for,” Edwards said. “And have the proper tools for what is needed, and go one step further.”

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