En Español Know Your Rights
Source: The Brooklyn Rail
Subject: Housing & Environmental Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Asthma Act Will Help Tenants Breathe Easier

Margarita
Pabon’s daughter was 18 months old when she began to show signs of chronic
illness. “It started with a bad cough,” began Pabon, who lives in Sunset Park.
“At first we thought it was a cold or the flu, but she kept being sick until
one night she could barely breathe.” Early one morning, Pabon took her daughter
to a doctor, who diagnosed the child with asthma.


As
the doctor outlined treatment options, he asked Pabon if there were
cockroaches, rats, or mold in her apartment, all of which are known asthma
triggers. Her answer was a resounding “Yes.”

 

Unnerved
to learn that poor housing conditions were literally making her daughter sick,
Pabon immediately asked her sister-in-law, the apartment’s leaseholder, to call
the landlord and demand repairs. He promised quick action, Pabon said, but did
nothing. Pabon’s sister-in-law then phoned 311 and City inspectors were
dispatched.

 

“There
was mold everywhere,” Pabon explained. “The ceiling in the bathroom was coming
down, the sink and toilet leaked, and the rug the landlord put on the floor was
filthy.” But the inspectors didn’t address the mold and rodent problems.
Instead, they removed lead they discovered in one of the rooms, and left.


Pabon’s
experience is not unique. Asthma is a potentially life-threatening condition,
and a growing public health crisis, but one that experts say City policy has
failed to adequately address. Brett Tolley, an Immigrant Advocate at La Union,
a community organization based in Sunset
Park
, said a major
obstacle is the City’s definition of indoor allergens as property rather than
health violations. “If there is lead in an apartment, a City inspector will
find it,” he explained, and if landlords fail to act immediately, the city
sends an emergency repair unit to get the job done. But mold, cockroaches, and
rats are deemed less serious “B violations,” akin to landlords failing to paint
or clean a hallway, or replace an entry light. As a result, these allergens are
often allowed to fester for years with no penalty to landlords.

 

As part of a larger
organizing effort around the issue, La Union has joined the Citywide Coalition
for Asthma-Free Homes, an alliance of seven community organizations working to
improve housing conditions in the five boroughs. One of the coalition’s top
priorities is ensuring the passage of the Asthma-Free Housing Act, which was
originally introduced in the spring of 2008 by Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum
and City Councilmember Rosie Mendez. The Act currently has 24 City Council
sponsors and, as drafted, would amend the Housing Maintenance Code to reduce
indoor allergens—rats, mold, and roaches—in units rented by people with asthma,
emphysema, or lung cancer. It would also require landlords to inspect
apartments at least once a year, and prove that asthma triggers have been
removed. Like Local Law 1 passed in 2003, which mandated the removal of
brain-damaging lead from housing units, the Asthma-Free Housing Act
re-classifies rats, mold, and roaches as immediately hazardous “C violations,”
and authorizes the Department of Housing Preservation and Development to
correct infractions if landlords don’t. The Act also requires the Department of
Health and Mental Hygiene to encourage healthcare workers to report suspected
indoor allergens to HPD on their patients’ behalf.

 

One
shortcoming of the Asthma-Free Housing Act is that it only applies to housing
units occupied by tenants who are already sick, even though it is well
established that respiratory conditions such as asthma often originate with
exposure to indoor allergens. Still, advocates support the legislation as a
necessary first step in addressing the crisis.

 

Promises From the City, But Little
Progress

 

Public
Advocate Gotbaum said she became interested in indoor allergens after her
office began tracking mold complaints and found a whopping 1800 percent
increase in calls to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene between 1999
and 2004. “I was shocked to learn that the Housing Maintenance Code contains no
enforceable protocol for mold assessment and clean up,” Gotbaum wrote in an
email. “This is a clear-cut public health issue; no one with asthma should have
to live in an apartment with pests or mold.”

 

This
conviction was buttressed by further research by Gotbaum’s office revealing
that one million New Yorkers, 300,000 of them children, live with asthma. The
condition is the primary reason for school absence in the U.S., and the
most common cause of hospital visits for those under 14. Not surprisingly, poor
and low-income families are at increased risk: A 2003 report by the City
Department of Health and Mental Hygiene demonstrated that those earning over
$75,000 a year live in units with fewer allergy triggers than those earning
$25,000 a year.

 

Make the Road New
York
,
a community group working to improve health conditions in low-income areas of
Brooklyn and Queens, got involved in the
Coalition for Asthma-Free Homes in 2005. That same year, according to
housing organizer Jesse Goldman, the group
conducted a study that found that the asthma hospitalization rate in Bushwick
was four times that of other parts of the city. The culprit? Bad housing
conditions.

 

“The
Act is a way to hold landlords accountable,”
Goldman explained. “It’s
about a greener home environment and represents a huge potential savings to the
City in terms of fewer Emergency Room visits and missed days of school. The
lead bill has lowered lead levels in children; the same could be true of asthma
if we remove the triggers that make it worse.”

 

It
seems like a no-brainer. Yet the Act has languished in the City Council since
its introduction last year.

 

Brian
Kaszuba, Gotbaum’s Deputy General for Intergovernmental and Legal Affairs,
blames the lack of progress on timing. “It was introduced late in the 2008
legislative year,” he said. “This session, the focal points of the Council’s
work have been the budget and term limits. The Asthma-Free Housing Act was
simply not the main thing on the Council or Administration’s agenda.”

 

But
the seven-member Coalition for Asthma-Free Homes, which includes the American
Lung Association, the Urban Justice Center, La Union,
Make the Road New York, the Fifth Avenue
Committee, the New York Immigrant Coalition, and the Northern Manhattan
Improvement Corporation, are determined to get the Act passed.

 

Landlords in Denial

 

This
past April, tenants from 346 54th
street
in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park
staged a boisterous protest outside the office of landlord Dan Brady. Veronica
Mirafuentes lives in one of two occupied apartments in the eight-unit building,
and ticks off conditions that would make Jacob Riis weep: black mold, leaks,
erratic heat and hot water, rats, roaches, holes in the ceilings, floors, and
walls, and garbage piled up by construction crews who began but never finished
renovating vacant apartments. HPD lists 301 violations–the roster runs 16
pages—for the building, from faulty boiler valves to broken windows and rampant
vermin.

 

This
state of affairs, said Mirafuentes, has exacerbated her son Nicholas’ asthma,
which he developed as a toddler. Despite near-daily use of a nebulizer and
inhaler, Nicholas misses a lot of school and has difficulty concentrating when
he is ill. “If his throat is sore or he is coughing, it is difficult for him to
pay attention,” she said.

 

At
her wit’s end, Mirafuentes described call after call to both her landlord and
311. She shrugs, “Nothing has helped.”

 

For
his part, Dan Brady pooh-poohs the complaints. “I’ve never seen evidence of
rats,” he said. “I could send an endless parade of exterminators and the
tenants would love it, but cockroaches are not endemic to buildings. They come
from grocery bags and poor housekeeping. Spraying with toxic chemicals would
not be doing the tenants any favors.”

 

But
advocates and city officials insist that less toxic alternative strategies for
managing pests are available. Gotbaum and other supporters of the Asthma Act
point landlords like Brady to Integrated Pest Management, a system of
complementary techniques that does include the use of some chemicals, but is
safer than traditional methods of extermination, and is endorsed by the City’s
Health Department.

 

But
Brady said that even if he were to decide to fix conditions, it would require
him to evict tenants, something he said he does not want to do.

 

This
assertion leaves organizer Brett Tolley virtually speechless. In his view,
there is plenty that can be done without displacing tenants. But he’s not
discouraged. His organization, together with residents, plans to continue
pressuring Brady to repair his property.

 

Toward
that end, Mirafuentes recently presented a dead rat, firmly affixed to a glue
trap, to landlord Brady. “This should end his denial of the problem,” she
laughed, adding that she is cautiously optimistic that the double-punch of the
rat and office protest will get results.

 

Margarita
Pabon, however, finally gave up, and moved her family to a freshly renovated,
pest-and-mold-free apartment. She reports that her daughter’s asthma has
greatly improved.