NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL – Council members criticized the president of the New York City Housing Authority on Tuesday for failing to inform the public of her failure to inspect thousands of public housing apartments for lead.
During an almost five-hour hearing committee, City Council officials criticized President Shola Olatoye for hiding from the Council that NYCHA had not made the required annual checks at 55,000 apartments for four years.
Olatoye learned for the first time in April 2016 that NYCHA had not been following a municipal law requiring annual inspections in apartments allegedly with lead paint where children under 6 lived. But he waited 15 months to say something publicly, despite having told the Council in March 2016 that NYCHA was complying with the law.
"My confidence in the credibility of this agency has been shaken with your testimony today," said Councilman Ritchie Torres (D-Bronx) told Olatoye on Tuesday before the Public Housing Committee, which chairs Torres.
The marathon hearing came three weeks after a report from the City's Research Department revealed that NYCHA did not inspect the apartments for lead between 2013 and 2016, but falsely told federal authorities that they had made the inspections .
As part of its ongoing investigation, DoI is examining whether NYCHA erroneously exempted more than 20,000 apartments from federal lead testing requirements, said Commissioner of Investigations Mark Peters to the committee. 19659002] The DoI investigation is one of three active investigations into NYCHA's lead testing practices. Federal prosecutors in Manhattan began investigating the authority in November 2015, and prosecutors Letitia James initiated their own investigation two weeks ago.
The committee, which chairs Torres, questioned Olatoye about why he falsely signed forms certifying before the US Department of Commerce. UU of Housing and Urban Development that NYCHA had conducted lead inspections in three of those years.
Presented one of them in the fall of 2016, long after learning that the housing authority had not followed federal law, and even after personally informing HUD officials about the time frame.
Olatoye thought of those people in person the disclosures were "sufficient" to submit the compliance form without taking into account that the tests had not been performed. But she did not consult Mayor Bill de Blasio or his administration about whether that was the right move. She did not specify whether HUD officials told her that the presentation would be acceptable.
"When I told HUD of the compliance gaps I had identified, I thought those disclosures were sufficient," Olatoye said.
NYCHA concentrated on inspecting apartments as soon as senior officials heard about the lead test lapse, Olatoye said. The authority was forced to deal with the problem while juggling other long-term projects to straighten the NYCHA ship after decades of neglect, he said.
But Torres and others argued that he should have disclosed the problem before July 2017, when he sent a letter to all NYCHA residents revealing the flaws. The housing authority will have to work hard to regain the trust of its residents, council members said.
"Communication is certainly unacceptable to me," said Council Member Vanessa Gibson (D-Bronx).
Olatoye expressed remorse for the breakdown of the communication, but argued that NYCHA is going in the right direction in general.
"We could have communicated in a more precise way, from now on we will continue to improve in that communication," said Olatoye.
 Torres questioned whether NYCHA could be sure it had really solved the problems in all the apartments that had lead paint in the past, since several workers who fixed the apartments with lead paint lacked the federal certifications to perform that job.
Since last year, the federal Environmental Protection Agency had certified about 30 NYCHA workers to properly fix apartments where lead paint represented a hazard, Olatoye said. But another 300 lacked the training required by HUD and the city, she said. NYCHA has said that about 2,300 apartments were remediated last year.
NYCHA is currently working to expand the number of EPA-certified workers to 144 and plans to hire an outside contractor to train its 2,700 frontline workers, Olatoye said.
City officials, including Olatoye, argued that around 55,000 public housing apartments are presumed to have lead paint and, therefore, require annual lead inspections according to federal regulations. About 21,000 people built before 1960, the year that lead paint was banned in New York City, their lead problems were solved and they are exempt from testing requirements.
But Torres said there is a possibility that some of those units have been exempted based on inspections by unskilled workers.
"There is a risk that some, if not all, of those units were inadequately reduced and therefore improperly exempt," he said.
City officials said that so far there is no evidence that any apartment was improperly removed from NYCHA's lead testing scheme. The Office of Housing Preservation and Development must give its approval whenever NYCHA wants to exempt the apartments from annual lead inspections, officials said.
"The data now tells us that those 55,000 units are where we should focus our attention to eliminate lead-based risk," said Olatoye.
(Main image: a person walks in front of a NYCHA complex. of East Harlem in 2015. Photo by Spencer Platt / Getty Images)