Inquiry on Public Housing Lead Failures Extends to Health Department

The New York City Housing Authority manages public housing like this complex in Brooklyn.

New York City’s failure to comply with federal rules on lead paint hazards, which has plunged the troubled public housing authority into scandal, has now entangled the city’s well-regarded Health Department.

The Department of Investigation is pursuing an inquiry into how information about blood lead levels in children, gathered by the Health Department from tests around the city, was or was not communicated to the city’s public housing authority, according to two people with knowledge of the inquiry.

The investigation opens yet another front in a slow-moving scandal at the nation’s largest public housing system. It has already resulted in a settlement with federal prosecutors over lead and other issues, an acknowledgment that the agency may be out of compliance on a host of other federal requirements and a promise by the city to spend at least $1 billion more to improve conditions.

The problems, the inquiry suggests, were not limited to the housing authority.

“Earlier this month, D.O.I. asked the Health Department for information related to lead investigations, and we have provided it,” Sam Miller, a spokesman for the department, said in a statement.

[What does fixing public housing look like on the ground? We spent a day with a Nycha superintendent]

Unlike the New York City Housing Authority, which has been plagued by mismanagement and disinvestment, the Health Department has a relatively strong reputation, burnished by its handling of public heath crises, from Ebola to Legionnaires’ Disease.

City investigators this month interviewed an official at the Housing Authority, known as Nycha, who is involved in the handling of lead hazards, one of the people said. But rather than asking the official about the workings of Nycha, the person said, the investigators’ questions focused on the Health Department and how information about blood lead levels was shared by health officials, particularly in 2017.

In January 2017, the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced new rules for public housing, lowering the threshold of lead in children’s blood that would trigger an inspection. The change reduced the threshold to five micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, from 10. The federal government gave all housing authorities until July 2017 to comply.

But for the second half of last year, Nycha failed to comply with the new federal rule. That is because the Health Department did not tell Nycha when children in public housing had tested positive for lead under the new regulations, and Nycha had no way of independently knowing, one of the people familiar with the inquiry said.

Before the rule went into effect last year, Nycha drafted an agreement to explain how the two agencies would cooperate in order to comply, the person said. But the Health Department did not believe such an agreement was necessary.

Officials from both agencies have since acknowledged that they did not begin complying until January 2018. At that point, the Health Department inspectors began testing apartments for lead under the new threshold and ordering Nycha to abate the hazards that were identified.

Once that process began, the Health Department conducted 40 lead inspections in public housing based on children who tested positive for lead since July using the new threshold. City Hall refused to provide the number of affected children or apartments that were covered by those 40 inspections or whether lead hazards were found.

While all the affected families have now received a home visit, Nycha and D.O.H. should’ve started these inspections earlier,” said Olivia Lapeyrolerie, a spokeswoman for the mayor. “The new leadership at Nycha is fostering a culture of urgency and rigor that’s never before taken hold at the agency.”

The timing of the newly revealed compliance failure is remarkable: It occurred at a moment when the issue of meeting federal rules on lead paint was known across the government — including inside City Hall — and Nycha was scrambling to inspect thousands of apartments with children under 6 years old. Those inspections, required under city and federal law, were halted in 2012 and did not resume until 2016, officials have said.

At the time, federal prosecutors were negotiating with city officials as part of a yearslong investigation into falsely filed paperwork related to lead paint inspections — forms that certified inspections had been conducted when they had not been — and many other aspects of the operations at the housing authority that is home to over 400,000 people. The investigation, by the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, resulted in the settlement with federal prosecutors last month.

Days after the agreement was announced, the Department of Investigation, along with the inspector general for the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency, seized documents in two surprise visits to Nycha offices in Queens. The raids were separate from the civil settlement, and appeared to be part of a potential criminal investigation, according to one person with direct knowledge of the action.

It was not known if the raid was connected with the inquiry into the Health Department.

Health officials explained their actions, in part, by saying that the 2017 federal rule change did not apply to their agency, only to Nycha.

Officials said the Health Department needed a full year to adjust to the rule in part because, for the first time, the federal government had mandated action based on blood lead levels in children that were lower than those that required action under city and state regulations.

The agency also had to create an entirely new policy for inspecting for lead in private buildings where residents were paying rent using Section 8 vouchers administered by Nycha. That required the agency to get access to data about where the subsidized apartments were located; it did not previously differentiate between types of private housing, officials said.

The Health Department, as a routine matter, receives the results of lead tests of children around the city, positive or negative. When the Health Department learns of a child with elevated blood lead levels, it conducts an inspection for lead in the home. If chipping paint or another lead paint hazard is found, the agency orders the landlord to abate the issue; those orders go to private landlords and to Nycha.

The orders do not contain information about the child or the level of lead in the blood. Housing officials said they did not know, based on the orders they received in the second half of 2017, that they were not abiding by the new threshold.

A spokeswoman for Nycha, Jasmine Blake, said in a statement that the two agencies work closely together. “When we first learned of this new rule we reached out to the Health Department, and with their assistance, we have been able to continue properly addressing apartments where the Health Department has identified potential lead hazards,” she said.

Applying the new, more stringent threshold to prior years, the city has said about 800 children under 6 were found to have tested positive for lead between 2012 and 2016.

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