Lead paint is making New York City’s children sick — and some landlords see it as the cost of doing business.
PUBLISHED THURSDAY, MARCH 31, 2016, 4:00 AM EDT
New York — The one-bedroom apartment in a 1935 six-story building in the Fordham neighborhood in the Bronx wasn’t exactly Zaimah Abdul-Majeed’s dream home. It was small for a family of four, but the rent was reasonable, just $1,050 a month, and the walls looked clean with a fresh coat of white paint.
In December 2011, just two months after she and her husband moved in with their 1-year-old twins, Abdul-Majeed got a call from her pediatrician’s office. The level of lead in her daughter Zoe’s blood was alarmingly high at 21 micrograms per deciliter — an amount four times the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention threshold of 5 micrograms per deciliter. The pediatrician and a nurse explained that at that level, Zoe was at risk for learning disabilities, lower intelligence and behavioral disorders.
Subsequent inspections by New York City’s health department found lead dust and paint residue throughout the family’s apartment. Inspectors also discovered patches of peeling lead paint in Zoe’s day care, located in a separate building nearby with a different owner. Abdul-Majeed sued both owners, who denied the allegations, according to court records. The lawsuit is still pending. Zoe’s twin brother, who also attended the day care, was not affected.
“I was shocked,” Abdul-Majeed said. “She’s starting off with a delay in her life, and it clearly wasn’t her fault.”
Lead contamination issues in Flint, Michigan, and in schools across the nation have brought renewed attention to the threat posed by the toxic metal. Even at tiny doses, lead can be especially harmful to children whose brains and nervous systems are still developing.
In New York City, federal prosecutors recently opened an investigation into lead hazards found in the city’s public housing. According to the health department, one of the biggest sources of lead exposure for New York City children is lead paint, which can flake and crumble onto floors, especially at friction points like door and window frames. It’s an issue in many cities and towns with older housing stock.
Mandatory blood testing and a 2004 law requiring lead paint inspections have paid dividends, contributing to a big drop in the number of reported poisoning cases each year. But for children in many of the poorest parts of the city — areas populated overwhelmingly by minorities and immigrants — the risk of lead poisoning remains stubbornly high, an investigation by The Huffington Post and WNYC found.
New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), which is responsible for oversight of the city’s vast stock of multi-unit residential buildings, started keeping a permanent online database of housing and maintenance code violations in November 2013. From that month through January 2016, HPD issued more than 10,000 violations for dangerous lead paint conditions in units with children under 6, the age group most at risk of ingesting toxic paint. Half of the violations were in just 10 percent of the city’s zip codes, low-income neighborhoods in the Bronx, Brooklyn and northern Manhattan, a HuffPost/WNYC analysis found.
Sources: The New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, U.S. Census Bureau
Within those neighborhoods, violations were concentrated in buildings managed by a small handful of landlords, who consistently flout lead safety rules without serious repercussions.
Of the nearly 2,000 landlords who were cited for violating the lead safety code over that two-year span, just 200 accumulated nearly 50 percent of all violations, according to a HuffPost/WNYC review of housing department data and registration records. That leaves a handful of property owners with a disproportionate share of lead violations in New York.
Some of these repeat-offender landlords are well known to those involved in New York’s inspection apparatus. Their tenants make the most complaints, file the largest number of lawsuits and claim the greatest number of health issues as a result of alleged negligence. City inspectors cite these landlords hundreds of times a year for failing to provide heat and hot water, maintain elevators or treat infestations of cockroaches and rats. The landlords’ lawyers appear in housing court almost every day to defend the latest accusation.
HuffPost and WNYC identified the building owners by cross-referencing the city department of finance’s property records, New York state’s corporate registration records and the HPD’s owner registration database. The analysis showed many of these landlords are the managers of limited liability companies that own their buildings, a strategy often used to “insulate” owners against personal liability in case of lawsuits, said Dan Woodard, the lawyer who represents Abdul-Majeed.
Among the top violators was Moshe Piller, whose company owns the apartment building where Abdul-Majeed lived when her daughter was found to have elevated levels of lead in her blood. Piller was cited for 161 lead violations between November 2013 and January 2016, while Ved Parkash, the landlord of the building that housed Zoe’s day care, was cited for 134. Most landlords cited during that same period — nearly 90 percent — had fewer than 10 violations.
Piller did not respond to several requests for comment.
Parkash would not discuss the lead paint violations, but his son Anurag Parkash, a housing lawyer for his family’s business, said they take the issue seriously. “You don’t want to say you ruined a kid’s life,” he said. “You want to do the work as soon as possible.”
New York officials and others knowledgeable about the city’s oversight of housing blame a cumbersome regulatory system, which requires an undermanned staff of city lawyers to fight in court simply to impose a fine on landlords. So while some property managers and owners have invested enormous sums to remove old lead paint, others have exploited weaknesses in enforcement, they say. These landlords seem to view the inconvenience of court dates and occasional fines as simply part of their business model.
“It’s extremely troubling,” Public Advocate Letitia James said in an interview. The housing department has “the ability to crack down and bring actions against these landlords, but they haven’t been that proactive.”
When housing inspectors cite landlords for dangerous lead conditions, the department requires landlords to make repairs but doesn’t automatically issue fines, an HPD spokeswoman said via email. That’s because the department’s lawyers have to take a landlord to court in order to pursue punitive actions.
The spokeswoman also said monetary penalties could have “unintended consequences” because some property owners cannot afford to pay. When asked about the high number of lead-paint violations in their buildings, many landlords we interviewed said they typically buy dilapidated buildings to fix them up, but it takes time. In some cases, landlords are barely breaking even on the buildings they own, according to Frank Ricci, government affairs director with the Rent Stabilization Association, a landlord organization.
Fines keep the money from the upkeep of the rest of the building, Ricci said. “All [they] do is put the building in further financial stress.”
Others see this explanation from landlords as simply a party line, noting there can be a financial incentive to ignore lead hazards.
“It’s the cost of doing business,” said Zachary Giampa, a lawyer who defends victims of lead poisoning. Giampa added that for landlords, it can be cheaper to just let problems fester.
In 2004, four decades after lead-based paint was banned in New York City homes, the city adopted new regulations requiring property owners to remove any peeling or crumbling paint in a unit where children under the age of 6 are present. Before that, the Health Department had a lead poisoning prevention program that mainly consisted of mandatory blood testing for children under 3.
The 2004 law, called Local Law 1, beefed up the housing department’s inspection system, requiring that officials check for deteriorating lead paint when they are called for any complaint to an apartment where young children reside.
Data from the New York City Health Department, which monitors the testing program, show the number of children with a blood lead level above the CDC threshold of 5 milligrams per deciliter has dropped 80 percent since the law was adopted. Yet despite this success, health department records show that in 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, more than 6,500 children still had blood lead levels above the national benchmark.
“It’s a public health success at an extraordinarily slow pace,” said Morri Markowitz, the director of the lead poisoning prevention program at Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx. One of the barriers to lead poisoning prevention, he added, is “upkeep of the apartments.”
Matthew Chachere, a lawyer with Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation who helped draft Local Law 1, said that the requirements under the law are strong, but that enforcement is scattershot. A central failing: The housing department does not have a system to ensure that landlords are removing lead hazards before families with children move into an apartment.
If they see chipping paint, tenants can notify their landlord directly or submit a complaint to the city’s 311 system, a public number that lets people report non-emergency issues. HPD responds to 311 complaints about housing conditions, and will issue a lead paint violation if an inspector uncovers flaking or cracked paint in a unit with children under 6. However, most lead paint violations are the result of unrelated inspections by HPD officials who happen to notice dangerous conditions, according to Stephanie Rudolph, a lawyer with the Urban Justice Center.
The health department can also conduct a home inspection and order repairs of lead conditions, but that typically happens when a doctor’s blood test result reveals a child has a lead level that’s more than two or three times the CDC threshold.
As a result, lead often isn’t detected in an apartment until after a blood test reveals that a child was poisoned. “It’s like using kids as Geiger counters,” Chachere said.
Once HPD issues a lead paint violation, a landlord is given three weeks to make the necessary repairs. If the landlord fails to make those repairs during the specified time frame, the housing department hires a contractor and bills the landlord, a department spokeswoman said.
The HPD may also fine landlords $250 a day per violation, with a maximum cap of $10,000, until fixes are made, according to the agency website. Fines are ordered by a Housing Court judge, and HPD prioritizes cases for litigation where buildings have “significant compliance issues,” according to a spokeswoman. In extreme cases, a lien can be put on the property for failure to comply.
But tenants’ rights advocates say landlords take advantage of this system.
The housing department tends to settle for less money than it usually seeks, said Gerald Lebovits, a former Manhattan Housing Court judge. “I recall case after case where landlords would owe 50, 60 or 70 thousand dollars, and the city would settle for 2 or 3 thousand dollars,” he said.
Anurag Parkash confirmed what Lebovits said. He said he negotiates with city lawyers to reduce the amount owed. “It’s a give and take,” he said. “Getting maximum dollars doesn’t really solve the problem — the goal is getting violations down.”
Property owners actually bank on the fact that some tenants, especially those that don’t speak English and are in the U.S. illegally, won’t complain at all, said one former housing inspector, who requested anonymity because the city doesn’t permit inspectors to speak to the media. “I have seen people who would not call the HPD even if they were in atrocious conditions and the ceiling had collapsed,” he said. “It’s easy for unscrupulous landlords to fall between the cracks” of the inspection system.
Piller, the landlord of the building where Abdul-Majeed’s daughter Zoe was exposed to lead, operates a small real estate empire out of his office in the Borough Park neighborhood in Brooklyn. He lives nearby, in a house built in 1991. Piller is the manager of dozens of companies that own more than 50 properties in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx, according to a HuffPost/WNYC review of HPD registration data and property records.
In the past decade alone, at least 10 families have sued Piller, or one of his companies, claiming that he failed to clean up decaying lead paint in their apartment and that a child was poisoned as a result. Two families received settlements, according to court records; other suits are still pending. Court documents also show that Piller’s insurer, AIG, alleges in a lawsuit filed last December that Piller has yet to pay back about $380,000 that the company disbursed to cover defense costs in eight of his lead-poisoning lawsuits.
Property records show that in 2001, Piller signed the mortgage for the 73-unit apartment building in the Fordham area of the Bronx where Abdul-Majeed’s family briefly lived. A HuffPost/WNYC review of violation records for the building since 2001 shows that in the 10 years before Abdul-Majeed moved in, housing inspectors discovered crumbling lead paint in more than one-third of the building’s units — all occupied by families with young children. Soon after Abdul-Majeed got the news of her daughter’s diagnosis, another family in the same building sued Piller alleging lead poisoning as well.
In Zoe’s case, inspectors also identified hazardous lead paint conditions in the apartment where she went to day care, in a neighboring building owned by Ved Parkash. His son Anurag Parkash said they didn’t know the tenant was operating a day care. The manager of the day care, which has since closed, declined to comment.
Because they can house about 12 children a day, in-home day cares can be especially problematic when it comes to lead paint hazards. At least seven of Ved Parkash’s buildings currently house day cares, according to a HuffPost/WNYC review of the New York state day care registration database. In the past seven years, inspectors found deteriorating lead paint in at least two apartments with a day care in Parkash’s buildings, a review of housing violations showed. Day care managers confirmed the violations.
For Parkash, an Indian immigrant, real estate is a family business: His three sons are housing lawyers, and Anurag Parkash is also the chief of NHS, an EPA-certified lead abatement company.
In interviews, several of Ved Parkash’s tenants accused him of putting profit above their safety. He ranks No. 1 on the Public Advocate’s list of “worst landlords.”
“It’s an embarrassment,” Anurag Parkash told HuffPost/WNYC during a recent visit to the family office in Jamaica, Queens. “You don’t want to be called a slumlord.”
To avoid further litigation, Anurag Parkash said workers are now checking for lead dust in empty units before new tenants move in. But for budgetary reasons, they don’t do preventative abatement in their hundreds of homes that are already occupied. “It’s a waste of time and efforts,” he said, adding that they can never seem to remove the toxic paint completely and hazards often reappear.
Ved Parkash owns more than 40 properties, and from November 2013 to January 2016, half of them were cited for at least one lead paint violation, according to the HuffPost/WNYC analysis. In the past two years, the health department fined two of his companies more than $2,000 for failing to make proper repairs and found that, on one occasion, his workers left lead dust and chips all over the apartment they were fixing, records from the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings show.
Two years after Zoe’s alarming blood test result, Abdul-Majeed, 31, who studies business administration at Monroe College and works as a receptionist for the City of New York Department of Public Assistance, began to worry about her daughter’s development.
Zoe had language delays, while her twin brother spoke more readily. She was hyperactive. Even seemingly simple motor-control skills like holding a crayon seemed difficult for her, Abdul-Majeed said. An evaluation by the Department of Education confirmed Abdul-Majeed’s fears. Zoe was diagnosed with severe delays in overall language skills, according to the Individualized Education Program report.
In time, Zoe may suffer some of the same problems as Taoufike, a 13-year-old boy who lives in one of Parkash’s buildings. In 2005, a blood test revealed that his blood level was 32 micrograms per deciliter — an exceptionally high rate that’s over six times the amount requiring close medical monitoring under CDC guidelines. Health department inspectors found bite marks on the baseboard near the radiator, and the boy was often seen with paint flakes in his mouth, his father, Adamu Moumouni, said in an interview. Subsequent test results confirmed the baseboard paint contained lead.
Moumouni, a taxi driver from Niger, said he had no idea what lead could do to children’s development. He just remembered noticing his son was acting oddly. The boy would bang his head against the floor and tear apart his toys, Moumouni said.
Today, Taoufike is aggressive, disrupts lessons and constantly fights with his classmates and siblings, his father described. “I am worried that he’ll get arrested or someone will get him to do some stupid thing,” he said. Some studies have linked lead poisoning to criminal behavior and high crime rates.
Zoe is 5 now. She loves stuffed animals and painting, and gets along with her twin brother, with whom she plays soccer and shares a tablet. She speaks with a soft, sometimes hesitant, voice. She often gets confused when she is asked to do more than one thing at the same time, her mother said. “She just sits there like ‘I didn’t get it, mum.’ So I have to switch words around.”
Abdul-Majeed, who is now single, said she wonders what will happen when Zoe will have to do things that require a sequence of tasks, like cooking or sewing.
Every day, Zoe rides a bus for special needs children to school in the Bronx. Twice a week, she attends occupational and speech therapy. She’s getting better at holding objects but often speaks gibberish, Abdul-Majeed said.
“I channeled my sadness into trying to help her because I knew that this is something that’s going to affect her for the rest of her life,” she said.