New York City is on the offensive against landlords who continue to expose their tenants to lead-based paint -- racking up 13,904 violations last year alone, Univision 41 Investiga has learned.
The number of violations is up 11% over the previous year, according to the city’s department of Housing Preservation and Development.
“We… have really beefed up that inspection,” said Kathryn Garcia, the city sanitation commissioner who has also been tasked by the mayor with eliminating the public’s exposure to lead. “We’re starting to push the envelope on that and you’re going to see more.”
The latest push is part of LeadFreeNYC, a city effort launched by Mayor Bill DeBlasio in January 2019 to stop childhood exposure to this toxic chemical. Although the city banned lead-based paint in 1960, many New Yorkers live in buildings that were constructed before then and still have remnants of old paint jobs – particularly in privately-owned Section 8 apartments and some government-run NYCHA buildings.
The new city effort includes enforcement – for the first time ever – of a New York City law that protects tenants from lead exposure before they ever move in, Univision 41 Investiga has discovered.
Private landlords are required to remove “all lead-based paint hazards” before a new tenant moves into a unit at a building made before 1960, according to the city’s housing maintenance code. That law has been on the books since 2004.
But it has rarely ever been enforced.
Univision 41 Investiga reviewed city records of HPD violations and found that in the nearly 16 years since the law was made, the city has only enforced it twice. Inspectors issued a violation against the owner of an apartment across from Fort Tryon Park in 2010, and another against a landlord in Washington Heights this past November.
But that all changed late last year.
On December 10, 2019, the agency began to issue dozens of violations to landlords across the city. So far, the worst offenders in each borough are:
- 610 West 111 Street in Manhattan, with 49 violations,
- 1429 Shore Parkway in Brooklyn with 24 violations,
- 1595 Metropolitan Avenue in the Bronx, with 19 violations, and
- 80-11 41st Avenue in Queens, with 11 violations.
In total, the city has cited landlords 443 times in just seven weeks for not clearing their apartments of lead before having a tenant move in.
Matthew Chachere is an attorney who helped author the 2004 legislation and represents tenants for the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corp., a community support organization in Washington Heights.
In November, Chachere reviewed a database of 5.3 million HPD violations and determined that most of the city’s effort until then had been focused on cracking down on properties with peeling paint. But to him, that kind of enforcement is too late – when kids have already been exposed to dangerous amounts of lead that could permanently alter the development of their brains.
“They just wrote violations for peeling paint. They finally started doing this after we embarrassed them into it,” Chachere said, referring to recent news articles that noted the city’s inaction.
He commended the city for starting to enforce the rule “that catches it before it's a problem.”
“When the apartment becomes vacant, that's the best time you can do all this work to avoid exposing a family to poisoning, to make the apartment safe,” he said.
Chachere said he and has remained frustrated and impatient as the years ticked by with the Bloomberg and DeBlasio administrations failing to enforce it.
Univision 41 Investiga asked Commissioner Garcia why the city waited until now to take action: Did the city previously lack the resources to enforce its own law, or was it simply not a priority?
“It was really around making sure we had the resources to move this forward in a way where we can actually achieve what we want to, because issuing the violations is just the first step. We have to actually win the case too,” she said.
“We are also… looking at landlords… pulling records, doing audits, to make sure people are protecting children,” Garcia said during a sit-down interview on Monday at her office. “I think that landlords for a lot of years did not do what they were supposed to do.”
“We want to make sure landlords understand what their responsibilities are, and so they need to be doing the right thing,” Garcia said.
The city's actions add to the already mounting pressure on irresponsible landlords. Last week, Univision 41 Investiga revealed that federal prosecutors have launched an investigation into Section 8 landlords for exposing New York City families to lead.