Private buildings have a load of lead problems, too: Tenants, advocates

Jodie Liedecker, of the Cooper Square Committee, center, at a town hall meeting on lead, in East Harlem, on Mon., Sept. 17. A City Council hearing on lead is coming up on Sept. 27. Photo by Sydney Pereira

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | The City Council is gearing up for a lead hearing this Thursday amid the ongoing crisis in New York City Housing Authority buildings, where more than 1,100 children have been poisoned with lead since 2012, according to the Daily News. But while the city has been slammed for allowing lead poisoning in public housing, tenants and advocates are demanding that the city crackdown on lead violations in private buildings, as well.

“The issue of lead contamination from construction dust is one that is particularly affecting gentrifying neighborhoods and people of color,” Jodie Leidecker, an organizer at the Cooper Square Committee, said at City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s Manhattan town hall in East Harlem on Mon., Sept. 17. “These folks are facing intense displacement pressure and are also subject to toxic environments in their own buildings when they decide to fight and stay in their homes.”

Leidecker added that “aggressive landlords” are well aware of this threat and ignore safe work practices as a part of an effort to push out rent-regulated tenants.

The practice, which tenants-rights groups frequently allege is “construction as harassment,” has often left tenants frantically calling 311 in hopes of getting their buildings tested for lead exposure.

When Samy Mahfar, of SMA Equities, known as one of the Lower East Side’s bad-acting landlords, bought 210 Rivington St. in 2013, apartments that became vacant were gut-renovated, leading to a buildup of construction dust in the place’s hallways.

When the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene conducted tests there, they found lead exposure nearly nine times higher than the federal threshold of 40 micrograms per square foot in some parts of the building’s hallways twice in 2014, according to lead reports.

“We were already feeling overwhelmed and without protection from the city,” Seth Wandersman, a tenant in the building, said of the gut renovations of apartments there. “Before that, I was not political at all, and this kind of mobilized me.”

The Soudry family of Better Living Properties has since purchased the building previously owned by SMA Equities.

An existing city law — Local Law 1 of 2004 — is supposed to prevent lead exposure like that at Wandersman’s building from happening by means of various protective measures, such as use of plastic coverings and frequent cleanup. But advocates say the 2004 law is hardly enforced.

“With respect to Local Law 1, the issue has to be some enforcement,” Matthew Chachere, a staff attorney for Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, told Stringer at last week’s town hall. “Plain and simple, if no one gets nailed for not doing this, no one will obey it.”

Holly Slayton and her daughter in a hallway of their East Village building, where lead-exposure readings have measured above the legal limit. Photo courtesy Holly Slayton

The East Village-based Cooper Square Committee and tenants associations have formed a coalition, Lead Dust Free NYC, to combat the problem, spurred by the City Council’s upcoming hearing on Thurs., Sept. 27, on nearly two-dozen pieces of legislation and the ongoing crisis in NYCHA housing.

“The de Blasio administration needs to do more to protect tenants from lead during renovations,” Brandon Kielbasa, Cooper Square Committee’s organizing director, said in a statement last Wednesday. “Landlords should be held accountable when they don’t preregister before major renovations, as the law clearly requires. We are seeing extremely high levels of contamination through construction dust. The laws that are currently in place, but not enforced, could do a lot to combat this problem.”

The agencies to focus on, Chachere said, are the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, Department of Health and Department of Buildings.

“You could end this if you just sat down with these agencies,” Chachere said.

New legislation slated for the City Council’s hearing this week focuses on coordination between agencies, among other lead issues.

One proposed law, sponsored by Lower Manhattan City Councilmember Margaret Chin, would require H.P.D. and D.O.H. to alert D.O.B. if a lead paint hazard violation has been found. D.O.B. could then issue a stop-work order in those buildings until the department can ensure that work will be done safely and legally.

Lead-exposure in older buildings is a common problem in the city, only worsened by gut renovations by unscrupulous landlords.

Tenants in Wandersman’s building and other Mahfar tenants organized, waging legal battles against the landlord. Mahfar is just one of several property owners on the Lower East Side and in the East Village accused of bad practices that ultimately push out rent-regulated tenants. This pattern appears to be exacerbated by a practice called “predatory equity” by the banks and financial institutions that finance these building purchases.

Last May, Eric Schneiderman, the former New York State attorney general, reached a $225,000 settlement with Mahfar. Some $175,000 of the settlement was for lead remediation in rent-stabilized housing. One of his buildings, 102 Norfolk St., had 2,750 times the federal threshold for lead exposure in stairwells and hallways.

Tenants in buildings once owned by Raphael Toledano — the young landlord who lost 15 East Village properties last year to foreclosure by his lenders — have also previously tested positive for lead levels far above the federal threshold.

Holly Slayton, a 27-year East Village resident currently living at 514 E. 12th St. — one of Toledano’s former buildings now owned by Madison Realty Capital — had construction dust seeping through deteriorating sealant in her floorboards. Last year, her doctor recommended that she and her now-10-year-old daughter wear dust masks inside their home. Slayton’s building had lead-exposure levels more than four times the federal threshold in November 2017, according to lead reports.

“It was horrible,” Slayton said. “There was dust everywhere. No protective coverings, no anything.”

Sometimes, the property managers would mop up the dust, she said. But even if they did, the water wasn’t drained and workers would mop the floors with black, sooty water.

“We spend a lot of time at home, and I was just constantly cleaning everything,” Slayton said. “When they did mop the hallways, they didn’t even clean the mops.”

At 514 E. 12th St., according to Holly Slayton, workers sometimes did at least mop up the toxic lead dust — but then didn’t dump out the water. They would later just dunk their mop in the the same lead-contaminated bucket of water to wet down the floors, keeping the lead dust circulating in the closed environment of the building. Photo courtesy Holly Slayton

A Madison Realty spokesperson was unable to immediately respond to a request for comment.

Down the block at 325 E. 12th St., Liz Haak, another former Toledano tenant, saw plastic coverings and regular cleanups of dust in the hallways during interior construction work. But last May, an overworked super left Haak’s building vulnerable to lead-filled construction dust.

When Haak’s super was away from work for three days, even for legitimate reasons, dust went unmitigated. She and other tenants were concerned, and called 311 in hopes of getting the hallways tested for lead. Sure enough, her building tested for up to 16 times the federal threshold.

“I guess the old stereotype is children eating [lead] paint from windowsills,” Haak said. But lead dust in building hallways and stairwells exposes everyone to the toxic substance, she said.

Then, in a second incident, this February, a certain area on each floor of her building was above the threshold again, according to lead reports. Haak said, in that instance, security cameras were being installed on all floors, requiring workers to cut into the walls, and she didn’t see any plastic tenting or dust cleanup being done.

“It was very careless work, and not supervised by Silverstone,” she said, referring to the property-management company. “When you walked into the building, there’s just clouds of dust. … I was just furious.”

A worker swept up the dust with a broom, but Haak said the dust should have been wet-mopped and properly vacuumed with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter to comply with the 2004 law.

Haak says when she called 311, her experience was the city often would only act more urgently about lead testing when children or pregnant women were in the building.

Liz Haak’s doorway at 325 E. 12th St., another East Village building formerly owned by Raphael Toledano that has seen hazardous conditions due to apartment gut renovations, according to tenants. Photo by Sydney Pereira

For children 6 years old and under, lead poisoning in the blood can lead to behavior and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems and anemia, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Pregnant women exposed to lead can expose their fetus to lead, as well.

In adults, exposure to the poisonous heavy metal can lead to increased blood pressure, decreased kidney function or reproductive problems in men and women.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health warns that some jobs can expose people to lead, including welding, radiator repair, bridge repainting and home remodeling, which could lead to reproductive health effects like infertility, miscarriage and low birth weight.

Blood lead levels impact older women, too. Postmenopausal women can have blood lead levels comparable to premenopausal women because lead stored in bones can be released as people age, according to research cited by NIOSH.

For old Lower East Side and East Village buildings where gut renovations are common, Wandersman emphasized the long-lasting impacts of such work.

“Construction noise — that’s going to be over when the construction is done,” he said. “But not this stuff — not lead.”

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