Asthma, like so many other illnesses, doesn’t like poor people.
The evidence is clear: Even though it affects more than 500,000 New Yorkers – more than half of them children – asthma is three times more prevalent in poor city neighborhoods where rodent and cockroach infestation is more common.
With 300,000 children suffering from the respiratory illness, New York has one of the highest childhood asthma rates in the U.S. It is the main cause of school absenteeism and the most common cause of hospitalization for children 14 years and younger in our city.
A report by the American Lung Association concludes that with the progressive worsening of the city’s air quality, asthma is bound to become even more prevalent. Pollution is "an everyday threat to just about every single New Yorker," said Corri Freedman, director of advocacy at the lung association’s New York City chapter.
Which is why the passage last Wednesday by the City Council of Intro 436-A, an expansion of the 2007 Safe Housing Act, is such welcome news. Intro 436-A is comprehensive legislation that will crack down on dangerous housing conditions, including asthma triggers that put families at risk, such as mold, rats and rodents.
Under this law, every year the city targets for repairs the 200 worst buildings in terms of housing code violations. Landlords must clear their buildings of violations – such as peeling walls, moldy ceilings and rodent infestation – themselves, or the city will do it for them – and bill them for the work.
"The first 200 buildings will come into the program at the end of the month," said Harvey Epstein, director of Community Development at the Urban Justice Center. "It may not sound like much but it actually helps thousands of families."
"Asthma is epidemic in low-income communities of color throughout our city, and this bill is an important step toward ending the impunity that is literally taking our children’s breath away," said Andrew Friedman, co-executive Director of the advocacy group Make the Road New York.
María Cortés, a member of Make the Road New York who has been in and out of emergency rooms for years with respiratory problems triggered by mold and roach infestation, knows firsthand about the impunity with which many landlords operate.
"My building has 186 open violations, 40 of which correspond to my apartment," Cortés said. "The court ordered my building owner to make the repairs but he has done very little."
With the new law, though, Cortés thinks that is about to change.
"Tenants should not have to suffer from asthma attacks because of the owner’s irresponsibility," she said. "This law will ensure tenants like my family are protected and landlords are held accountable."
"[This] is a significant step forward," said Michelle de la Uz, executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, a Brooklyn neighborhood group. "Infestations of mold and vermin that are not handled properly pose significant threats to health…the expansion of the city’s enforcement authority to address these issues is much needed in many communities throughout New York City."
The City Council has taken that significant first step. Now, for the sake of all New Yorkers – but especially our low-income families – the next step should be to make sure the new legislation is strictly enforced.
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