So many low-income families are being exposed to dangerous levels of lead paint at Section 8 affordable housing that federal prosecutors in New York City have launched an investigation into private landlords who refuse to clean up their apartment units, Univision 41 Investiga has discovered.
People who get government help under the federal Section 8 program generally have two options. One is to move into government-owned buildings, commonly known as projects. The other is to get a voucher to rent from a private landlord -- who in turn receives a government subsidy.
This federal probe is looking into those kinds of private landlords. In order to receive these steady government rent checks, landlords must assert that their apartments are free of lead, a toxic chemical that can severely impair childhood brain development.
But there’s evidence that a number of these landlords in New York City are lying about the conditions at their apartments -- and children are getting sick.
"When it's done right, checking for lead is more thorough at public owned housing than private owned Section 8 homes," said Jonathan W. Wilson, who previously helped evaluate the federal government's largest and most comprehensive study of lead hazard control in housing ever undertaken in the United States. He is now deputy director of the National Center for Healthy Housing.
Shoddy inspections at privately-owned Section 8 apartments "happens more often than we'd like to think," Wilson said.
In an official communique dated July 1, 2019, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York alerted the city that it had started to investigate. The civil investigative demand called for the city government hand over voluminous records relating to landlords, their properties, and medical records of children whose children tested with too much lead in their blood.
The city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene refused to turn over medical records without a court order. On July 22, U.S. District Judge J. Paul Oetken ordered the city to comply with the demand.
This week, city officials confirmed that they had turned over information to assist with the federal probe. Kathryn Garcia, the municipal sanitation commissioner who also oversees the city’s effort to eliminate public exposure to lead, sat down with Univision 41 Investiga for an interview on Monday.
"We certainly provide information to the Southern District should they request it, and we have. But we are not in the middle of their investigation," Garcia said.
The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York declined to acknowledge the investigation or provide comment for this story.
Univision 41 Investiga came across the documents while reviewing federal court records earlier this month.
A similar discovery by journalists in 2016 revealed that federal prosecutors in Manhattan were investigating the city’s public housing authority, NYCHA, for hiding extensive problems from inspectors and lying about lead paint conditions. That previous investigation resulted in a federal lawsuit against the city that forced NYCHA to spend billions in repairs -- and installed a federal monitor to oversee the improvements.
But housing experts tell Univision 41 Investiga that this sweeping federal inquiry could involve many more families exposed to alarming levels of this toxic chemical than those in NYCHA buildings. And it’s all a matter of timing.
Consider the history of lead paint. Although several European countries banned the use of lead paint as early as 1909, manufacturers in the United States continued to make it decades later. The use of lead paint here declined in the 1950s and was outlawed in New York City in 1960. That means homes constructed before and shortly after World War Two -- which make up a significant portion of the privately-owned Section 8 apartments -- likely used lead paint. By comparison, the largest NYCHA buildings were built between 1945 and 1965, so a sizable number were constructed when lead paint was being avoided.
Wanda Collado rents from a private landlord who takes part in the Section 8 program. She lives with her two daughters, two sons, and her Dominican mother at an apartment that, for a time, had peeling paint on several window and door frames. When she started to grow worried that her baby boy would crawl across the floor and stick paint shards into his mouth, she called the city’s helpline at 311. An inspector stopped by and discovered that six different spots tested positive for lead-based paint hazards, according to 2017 city records reviewed by Univision 41 Investiga.
Collado claims that her landlord initially resisted paying for the repairs, then refused to pay for her family to stay at a hotel while the repairs were made.
“It didn’t make sense. If we stayed here, me and the kids would have been exposed to lead,” she said.
Collado sought help from a community organization, the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corp., whose lawyers pressured the landlord to pay for it all.
The landlord, Leon Lovinger, declined to comment. But he did make his lawyer, Massimo D’Angelo, available for an on-camera interview. D’Angelo claimed the landlord willingly made all the necessary repairs, but more importantly, didn’t know there was lead in the apartment.
However, New York City’s housing code states that “it shall be presumed that paint… is lead-based paint” at apartment buildings built before 1960. Yet D’Angelo contests that, saying that the title of the law, “violation in a dwelling unit upon turnover,” means that a landlord only has that responsibility when the city already issues a violation.
Matthew Chachere, a housing attorney who helped write that law in 2004, said that’s nonsense.
“That’s not at all what it means,” Chachere said.
Univision 41 Investiga is attempting to identify the landlords and properties under investigation. We have filed an official records request with the city of New York seeking documents that detail which landlords and which properties have exposed their tenants to lead.