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Federal Prosecutors Expose Dangerous Conditions in NYC Public Housing

A stairwell is seen at a building in a public housing project in Brooklyn known as the “Pink Houses,” November 21, 2014. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

New York City will be required to invest billions in public housing as part of an agreement reached with federal prosecutors after a two-year investigation into the squalid conditions maintained within the city’s housing units.

The deal, which also requires the appointment of a federal monitor to oversee reforms, was reached after U.S. attorneys for the Southern District of New York accused city officials of knowingly maintaining unsafe housing conditions and publicly lying about the extent of the danger posed to residents in a suit filed Monday.

“The New York City Housing Authority violates basic health and safety regulations of the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD),” the complaint filed in a Manhattan federal court states. “These regulations require NYCHA to protect children from the lead paint that is present within apartments in roughly one-third of NYCHA developments and, more generally, to provide residents decent, safe and sanitary housing. NYCHA has repeatedly made false statements to HUD and the public regarding these issues and has deceived HUD inspectors.”

The agreement requires that the city provide roughly $2 billion in funding to the NYCHA over the next five years and, once that dries up, contribute $200 million per year until the issues are resolved. The settlement was accompanied by a consent decree, which requires that a court-appointed monitor oversee reform efforts.

The suit concludes a two-year federal investigation that found the city exposed at least 19 children to dangerous levels of lead present in paint in NYCHA units, while also failing to maintain functioning elevators, adequate heating systems, and proper pest control.

“These 19 children are at risk of lifelong neurological problems. But the 19 cases understate the true extent of lead poisoning likely to have been caused by crumbling lead paint at NYCHA,” according to the complaint.

Officials are further accused of falsely certifying that lead-paint inspections were administered in 55,000 potentially compromised units.

“To fend off concerns by HUD, the media, and local politicians that NYCHA’s large backlog of maintenance work was threatening living conditions at NYCHA, NYCHA began reporting reductions in its backlog,” the lawsuit said.

In his comments Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio cast the problems as an unfortunate inheritance from his predecessors, though much of the wrongdoing outlined in the suit allegedly occurred on his watch. The mayor resisted demands that NYCHA chair Shola Olatoye be fired for months, until she finally resigned in April after forcing out and demoting a number of her subordinates.

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