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Deadly Fire Victims in NYCHA Building File Claim for $2.2 Billion

Benjamin Solomon Carson Sr. serving as the 17th and current United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development since 2017 and Bill de Blasio Mayor of New York City since 2014.

Oshan & Associates filed a claim of $2.2 billion on behalf of the family that had their lives lost in a Harlem fire last month. The fire occurred in an NYCHA managed building which dates back to 1910.

The building is alleged to be part of a vast tract of NYCHA buildings that have suffered major neglect over the past few years. Most of the building’s fifth-floor unit’s emergency exits were off the kitchen.

The Pollidore family had occupied their fifth-floor apartment in the Fred Samuels Houses. The fire was reported to have started in the kitchen of the little apartment. From there it rapidly spread and blocked any exit through the main door.

As it spread it also quickly blocked any path to emergency exits just off the kitchen. The family was found dead in bedrooms on opposite sides of the apartment, where they had probably cowered as all escape routes were cut off.

Claims like these are important as they help draw public attention to serious situations with devastating loss. They also help to keep administrators and property owners in check and on their toes, so there would never be another tragedy like this.

We still await the Fire Marshal’s final report on the incident and once it comes in, we will review the report.

“The eye-popping sum is not arbitrary”

In June last year, the US Attorney had to file an action against the NYCHA for gross mismanagement of its public buildings. According to the complaint, “the problems at NYCHA reflect management dysfunction and organizational failure, including a culture where spin is often rewarded and accountability often does not exist”.

The case alleged situations of gross neglect in many of the NYCHA managed buildings. These included high levels of lead paint accumulation, damaged elevators and a huge rodent problem. To settle the case, New York City committed $2 billion under an agreement that was directed to fix the situation. The City was to pay $1 billion up front and another 200 million annually.

However, the agreement was rejected by the court when it was initially submitted for a consent decree in November 2018.

The building in which the tragic fire occurred had four open citations for failure to conduct safety inspections from 2016. According to Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro, as firefighters rushed into the building, they heard no fire alarms. The development which the building forms a part of also failed a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) inspection in February 2017.

Part of the inspection routine involved checking for defective smoke detectors and hazards like mold. The development failed the inspection, scoring a 59 on a 100-point scale, one short of the 60 pass mark.

In 26 units of the 21 buildings visited, the inspection revealed many safety and health deficiencies. These included two instances of missing or faulty smoke detectors.

This consistent culture of neglect attracted comment from the judge. He deplored the “breathtaking scope” of the conditions that exist in the NYCHA buildings. He also rebuked the city for its failure of oversight.

In his 52-page decision on the application for a consent decree, he dwelt extensively on the shocking conditions in the buildings.

Horrible culture of Neglect in NYCHA buildings

Before deciding to reject the application for a consent order, the court entertained testimony from over 50 tenants in NYCHA buildings. On beginning his decision, the judge referenced the “disastrous human toll” that had resulted from NYCHA’s neglect.

According to Judge Pauley, the organization’s size as the largest housing authority in the US is only paralleled by its organizational disarray. Contrary to its mandate to provide “decent, safe and sanitary housing”, the NYCHA had substantially failed in its duties.

The judge addressed these failings based on the complaint filed against the authority by the US Attorney. The complaint alleged serious lead paint violations and a failure to deal with heating, mold, elevator and vermin problems.

Lead paint regulation violations

Despite public assurances by NYCHA that lead paint was not widely used in its buildings, the contrary was alleged by the complaint. In fact, according to the complaint, NYCHA’s own documents revealed that more than half of its developments have lead paint. The minimum figures, according to NYCHA’s own assertions, show that at least 51,000 apartments in 21,000 buildings contain lead paint.

Even worse, in buildings that NYCHA initially declared to be lead free, inspections turned up lead paint. Contrary to its obligations, NYCHA failed to conduct required inspections or take remedial steps for years. It conducted less than 25% of required evaluations in 92 developments with lead paint between 2010 and 2017. In fact, in 50 of these developments, there was not even a single evaluation during the period.

The judge referenced the fact that top NYCHA officials knew about this situation and yet failed to act. Even where the authority found a child with elevated blood lead levels in a development thought to be lead free, it still failed to conduct evaluations. Also, when NYCHA restarted inspections in 2016, the maintenance work was done by untrained employees. This resulted in a mere papering over of the damage. Top NYCHA officials were also aware of this.

Most damaging about the complaint is the fact that it is general knowledge that lead is toxic to all humans. Even in small quantities, it has been shown to lead to serious ailments like cancer and kidney failure. It is especially dangerous to children who may suffer irreversible brain damage if exposed. Even though New York City’s Department of Health confirmed that at least 19 children living in lead-infused apartments had high blood lead levels, nothing was done. NYCHA refused to report the cases to HUD or provide any information.

Mold, heat and vermin

Tenants in NYCHA buildings have been forced to live in near squalor for several years. Mold, heating issues during winter, malfunctioning elevators and vermin of all types are what they have to contend with daily.

As alleged in the complaint, between 2013 and 2016, NYCHA tenants lodged 18,000 to 28,000 complaints about mold growth every year. In the same period, there were 117,000 to 146,000 complaints each year about flooding and leaks. Most of these went unheeded, contributed to the healthy mold growth in the developments.

Between 2011 and 2016 as well, there were 825,000 complaints about NYCHA’s persistent inability to provide enough heat during winter. In the winter of 2015 – 2016 alone, NYCHA tenants made more than 155,000 complaints about insufficient heating. In 2018, more than 323,000 tenants, over 80% of all NYCHA’s tenants were without heating or hot water for 48 hours.

The judge also referred to complaints that in 2016 nearly 70% of NYCHA buildings with at least one elevator had no working elevators at some point. Between 2011 and 2016, there was an average of 94 outages per elevator throughout NYCHA’s developments.

Top NYCHA officials were aware of all these failures. Even in the face of common knowledge that these conditions have health implications. Mold can cause asthma and other respiratory problems; vermin carry all sorts of disease that may be life-threatening. The heating deficiencies will have forced many residents to leave their stoves or ovens on overnight, a dangerous practice that can result in residential fires.

Systemic cover-up

Perhaps even worse than the specter of NYCHA’s “callous indifference” to the plight of its tenants, the complaint alleged that the authority covered up the situation for years. And this was no low-level cover up either. The complaint alleged that the “deception” was part and parcel of NYCHA’s culture, “from top-level management downward”.

The judge referred to the example of the NYCHA chair’s testimony before the New York City Council in March 2016. The Chair testified that the authority performed regular visual inspections of lead paint. Even though they learned later in April 2016 that no assessments were carried out, they did nothing.

Between 2010 and 2016, the NYCHA falsely certified its compliance with HUD regulations on lead paint. It also falsely certified its compliance with its obligations to provide “decent, safe and sanitary” housing conditions.

Another example of the alarming deception carried out by the NYCHA was its scheme to reduce its backlog of work orders. The authority had attracted criticism for its backlog of 400,000 work orders between 2010 and 2012. Seeing as it was on track to add to this backlog, the NYCHA sought to engineer a false reduction.

To do this, it first suspended annual inspections between 2012 and 2014. This enabled it dispose of 200,000 work orders. Next, in February 2013, it revived a policy that allowed members of staff close a work order by reporting that the tenant was not home. This allowed them dispose of another 200,000 work orders in 2013. They then claimed falsely that they had reduced the backlog based on measures that “improved efficiency and productivity”.

The worst incidence of the authority’s consistent deception was its attempt to game HUD’s inspection system. It circulated dossiers on individual inspectors to staff. This was to enable them identify and provide quick fixes for issues that those inspectors were known to check for. They employed a host of dishonest measures including:

  • Temporarily shutting off water supply to hide leaks
  • “Fixing” holes in walls and ceilings by using newspaper and cork before painting it over
  • Installing fake walls to hide broken doors and uninhabitable rooms
  • Hiding improperly stored hazardous materials.

Sadly, most of these allegations were admitted by NYCHA in the settlement arrangements.

The NYCHA inexplicably left funds over $300 million untouched in its budget

Another point of note referred to by the judge was the inexplicable surplus in NYCHA's budget. $377 million of $483 million in capital funding left untouched by NYCHA. It was particularly surprising considering that the authority will need $31.8 billion to fix its capital needs deficit.

The judge wondered how those funds were not applied to address the tenants’ needs despite persistent complaints. Rather than apply them to offset some of the crying needs in the developments, the funds were inexplicably left to roll over into their 2019 budget.

$2 billion settlement reached with US Attorney

Although the agreement that was thrown out by the court finally entered into force with amendments in January 2019, it apparently had no effect for the late Ms. Pollidore and family.

Interestingly, Mayor Bill de Blasio recently appointed a new head at NYCHA, Gregory Russ. The appointment, would have been expected to grab the headlines for the changes that will be wrought at the housing authority. Rather, it is infamous for making the head of NYCHA the highest paid city official in New York, at $400,000 per year. It is expected that the new head will ring the changes at NYCHA and, in line with the agreement, make public housing in New York better.

Even though the new agreement aims to reverse the rot caused by years of neglect by NYCHA, it does nothing to provide justice for victims of the neglect. And it is justice that Raven Reyes, daughter of Mrs Pollidore and her estate, seeks.

The city of New York and the NYCHA were put on notice with a $2.2 billion dollar claim.

Oshan and Associates is committed to securing justice for aggrieved tenants

The sad details related above show some of the extent of neglect and depredation that NYCHA allowed to exist in its buildings. As the largest public housing authority in the US, one would expect that NYCHA would live to a higher standard. Unfortunately, the reverse has been the case.

In all circumstances, New York law requires property owners to maintain their buildings with due care. The premises liability laws impose an obligation on management agencies to properly maintain whatever facilities are common to all tenants.

Facilities such as elevators, lobbies, heating, water, smoke detectors or sensors and staircases must be kept in good standing. Where the management agency has a responsibility to maintain good sanitary conditions.

The duty on these agencies extends to removing any hazards that may result in injury or loss for visitors and tenants. Regulations such as building codes and safety regulations specify what would constitute hazardous. Property owners should abide by these.

When they fail to do so, they may be liable under New York law. If tenants are harmed by the unsafe conditions created by their neglect or if they suffer loss, the agencies may be responsible. In some instances such as where unsafe conditions were ignored or covered up, criminal liability may even lie.

At Oshan and Associates, we firmly believe that tenants and residents should not be at the mercy of powerful landlords. You have the right to decent, safe and sanitary housing. If this right has been breached in any way, the law allow you the right to seek redress.

If you or your loved one has been harmed due to this sort of neglect, get in touch with us. We will fight aggressively to ensure that you receive the justice you deserve.

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