Conditions at 211 Irving Avenue are bad enough for tenants without asthma. But for those living there with the chronic disease, daily life can be a struggle.
Last Wednesday, two such individuals invited the media into their homes to give them an in-depth view of their situation. The visit revealed mold, dust, and holes that rats can potentially tunnel through. The occupants claim that they have asked the landlord numerous times to fix these problems, which can trigger potentially fatal asthma attacks. Unfortunately, their requests are frequently ignored. They also said that the building has 133 open violations listed against it.
Earlier in the day, local activists from Make The Road By Walking held a rally in front of the site to draw attention to the asthma sufferers’ ordeal. Together with the tenants, they demanded that the building’s landlord make the necessary repairs, and for city officials to adopt legislation that would affect irresponsible building managers on a larger scale.
They were joined by the Pratt Area Citizens Coalition (PACC), the American Lung Association of the City of New York, Inc., and Councilwoman Letitia James. Irene Tung, coordinator of Organizing for Make The Road By Walking, kicked off the event by announcing the formation of The Coalition For Asthma Free Homes (CAFH), comprised of the aforementioned organizations as well as the New York AIDS Housing Network and Congregation B’nai Jeshrun.
Tung said that the coalition would be pushing for a new bill called the Healthy Homes Act, which would use fines to compel landlords to fix potential health risks. "We’re calling on negligent landlords to protect asthmatics and their families from roaches and other pests that exacerbate their suffering," she said.
According to information handed out by the American Lung Association, Brooklyn has the second-highest rate of asthma prevalence in the city at 7.9 percent. As a whole, children living in New York City are almost twice as likely to be hospitalized for the disease – which causes airways to the lungs to become inflamed – than in any part of the United States.
A considerable portion of the one million city residents, including 300,000 children, who have been diagnosed with asthma live in Councilwoman James’ district. In the wake of rousing chants by more than 20 on-hand CAFH members who shouted "Asthma, no! Health, yes! Cockroaches, no! Health, yes!" repeatedly in Spanish, the local politician outlined the extent of the epidemic, and demanded better efforts to reduce harmful stimuli.
"Too many homes, too many adults, and too many children suffer from asthma," James said. "Too many people cannot breathe. We’re calling on this administration to reduce asthma triggers, and to think about how all this development [may be] affecting these triggers."
While the Healthy Homes Act may do little to stem the rampant construction going on across the borough, it would supposedly attack irresponsible landlords where it would do the most harm – in their wallets.
Angel Vera, Make The Road By Walking’s Environmental and Housing Justice Project Organizer, told the Star that under the proposed legislation, landlords must fix any Class C violation – which are violations that represent an imminent threat to the tenants’ welfare – within 30 days. There would be an automatic second inspection by Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) to make sure that the problem was fixed. If the violation still existed, HPD would perform the correction themselves, and bill the landlord twice what it cost them to bring the building up to code.
The possibility of stronger measures was met with open arms by residents of 211 Irving Avenue. Monica Navarro, who is also a member of Make The Road By Walking, complained about dust emanating from old rugs that the landlord refused to remove from her apartment. She also said that mold on her ceiling caused serious medical complications roughly a month ago. "I had to go to the emergency room because of an asthma attack," she told rally supporters.
Later, she showed press members the hole in the corner of her kitchen, where she claims to have seen cat-sized rats scurrying through. Navarro, who has lived at the address for eight years with her mother, who is also asthmatic, said she is worried about raising her one-year-old son in such a dirty environment. "I don’t want him to get asthma," she said. "We need the city to fix this, and to pass the Healthy Homes Act now."
Kathy Allen, who lives at 546 Bedford Street and is a member of PACC and Make The Road By Walking, offered up a different solution, albeit with the same underlying purpose: "The landlords are responsible for [fixing] these things," she said. "If they don’t, then we shouldn’t have to pay. This is America. With the taxes that we’re paying, this shouldn’t be happening. Stop their money from coming in. That’s the only way to hurt them."
CAFH supporters, clearly as fed-up with the lack of building management action as Allen, cheered her on. "People are dying," she said. "Mold, lack of hot water, vermin: All these things are happening. The landlords, meanwhile, are asking for more money, but they’re not doing anything with that money."
People within the community were not the only ones who expressed their outrage. One of the guest speakers, Dr. Edward Fishkin, medical director for Woodhull Medical Center, said it was unconscionable that in the wealthiest city on the planet, there could be people living in such haphazard conditions. He urged the current administration to take proactive steps against the asthma epidemic, which he claimed was the number-one reason for emergency room visits and sick days taken by parents with asthmatic children. "If we can put Olympic athletes on the ground in Athens to win medals, we can keep children from getting asthma," Dr. Fishkin said.
Finally, Jamillah Jordan, a staffer for the group WE ACT For Environmental Justice, reminded attendees of the extent to which the negligent landlord problem exists. She said that over 43 percent of buildings in neighborhoods such as Bushwick, Washington Heights, and the South Bronx have health violations that are not being addressed. "Asthma sufferers demand that New York City prioritize," she said.
Among the changes deemed necessary by Jordan were: raising the hazard class of asthma triggers to Class C-level so that these violations are addressed sooner; increasing the number of asthma protocols; and passing the Healthy Homes Act. "We need to encourage landlords to get these repairs made," she said. "You see rats on the ground all the time. We’re no longer going to live with these conditions."