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Know Your Rights
Source: AM New York
Subject: Housing & Environmental Justice
Type: Media Coverage

City’s poor struggling to breathe

would you do if you saw a child choking for air? Most of us would try to help.

Sadly, tens of thousands
of children in New York City with asthma choke for air every day, in all five
boroughs, and our elected officials are doing far too little to help them.

While asthma affects New
Yorkers in every neighborhood, it affects many more people in low-income
communities of color. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Health
has found that asthma rates in Bushwick and Williamsburg are 400% what they are
in the city as a whole.

The real tragedy of
asthma, though, is that it could be prevented. Even in cases where asthma is
difficult to prevent, the disease is treatable.

"Fighting to Breathe:
Asthma in Bushwick," a report released earlier this week by the Wyckoff
Heights Medical Center and the community organization Make the Road by Walking,
demonstrates that the city is failing to prevent and treat asthma in low-income

Among the primary findings
of the report is that most New Yorkers who suffer from asthma live in unhealthy
housing. Of the 300 asthmatics who were interviewed, an astounding 69% reported
living in cockroach-infested apartments. Sixty-seven percent said they had
excessive dust in their apartments, and 47% had rat or mouse infestation
problems. One out of three asthmatics reported mold in their apartments.

All of these housing
conditions are clear violations of New York City’s housing code. Nonetheless,
the City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) is renowned
for failing to get slumlords to fix housing code violations, even the most
serious ones.

A study by the Association
for Neighborhood and Housing Development showed that tenants have to wait an
average of one year before landlords fix housing code violations that the law
requires be fixed within 24 hours.
Similarly, a recent study by the tenant advocacy coalition, Housing Here and
Now, showed that of the 1,533 buildings that were on HPD’s Major Problem
Building List in 2003, almost a third had even more "immediately
hazardous" violations in 2005 than in 2003.

Unfortunately, HPD’s
failure to enforce the housing code means that tens of thousands of New Yorkers
who suffer from asthma, and other respiratory ailments, live in apartments that
are riddled with asthma triggers. According to Bushwick resident Veronica
Acosta, "We are forced to live in unhealthy homes because irresponsible
landlords refuse to fumigate and make necessary repairs to our old buildings.
Even after taking our landlord to court four times, he still refuses to repair
our apartment."

The report also shows that
a great majority of asthmatics in Bushwick improperly treat their asthma. An
alarming 59% of Bushwick residents do not use any preventative medicine to
control their asthma.

In addition, the study
shows that 48% of asthmatics treat their asthma attacks in the emergency room,
and that one out of four asthmatics does not understand how to use their asthma
medications correctly. This confusion can have dreadful consequences.

One Bushwick resident,
Sonia Mangual, recalls, "They only told me not to use more than three tubes
of Albuterol for my nebulizer after I went into a coma for 45 days because I
had used too much Albuterol!"

The federal, state and
city governments must combat this public health crisis by allocating
significantly more resources to expand asthma education and treatment services.
That, coupled with improved housing code enforcement, would go a long way
toward helping New Yorkers breathe easy.

Andrew Friedman is a Fellow at the Drum
Major Institute and Co-Director of Make the Road by Walking.