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Something In The Air: Battling Mold in NYCHA

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According to the New York City Department of Health, about 170,000 children in New York City suffer from asthma. While, many of these cases are affected by air quality, one family is dealing with pollutants inside their home.

Ayliphelet Ramirez is a volunteer speaker for Manhattan Together and lives in a West Harlem NYCHA apartment. She’s lived in the same three bedroom apartment with her husband and two daughters for 15 years. During that time, Ramirez has had so many mold problems, that she's lost track, and while she doesn't notice how it's affected her health and that of her husband, it's "messed up" her kids pretty bad.

Ayliphelet’s daughters, Izayli and Dalia, both have asthma. At 13 years old, Izayli understands why she can’t live in her bedroom anymore or even spend long periods of time in the bathroom. But Dalia is nine and has autism. Ayliphelet says just as Dalia started sleeping in her own bed the girls had to move to a different room.  “Right now I have them sleeping in the guest bedroom, because its been about four and a half months that I have like huge holes in the walls and their closet and in the bathroom. I can’t keep them in there with all that mold and the moisture from the pipes and everything.”

The pink shower curtain with blue butterflies is a stark contrast from the black garbage bags that hang over the toilet. The montage of clear and black garbage bags cover the holes that Ayliphelet says were made by NYCHA maintenance men who don’t finish the job.  “They left all the debris, they left everything on the floor, they left the holes exposed and everything. So me and my husband had to go and sweep everything up and throw everything in those black garbage bags and then my husband had to cover those walls, he couldn’t leave them exposed like that.”

Michael Stanley, a lead organizer with Manhattan Together and South Bronx Churches, says this isn’t even the worst situation he’s seen.   “I’ve seen worse smells coming out of the holes… also much much more mold, ceilings completely covered in black. Although I know this one was previously, and if NYCHA doesn’t fix it, may be again.”

In April of 2014 a federal judge ruled NYCHA had to fix mold and moisture damage in a timely manner, but residents continued to complain that NYCHA was not complying. So, in December 2015, a position was created to help the agency get the job done, but residents still complained that their issues were not being addressed. As a final measure, NYCHA agreed to a settlment that would put an ombudsman in place to work with residents and make sure NYCHA gets in compliance. But Stanley says a judge has not yet signed off on it. Stanley says an ombudsman might make a real difference. 

But, Stanley says NYCHA hasn’t changed how it handles these issues.  “We have a fifty percent chance that they will appear to fix something, and that’s cause they know a federal judge is looking, because they know we know the US attorney, that’s cause we know the press,” he said.   

NYCHA spokesman Michael Giardina said the agency strives to provide families with safe, clean homes they desrve. Stanley says very little progress has been made since the last federal order. He said getting NYCHA to fix mold is like winning the lottery. “There’s 180,000 apartments in NYCHA and I can say that this lawsuit has led to about 300 apartments getting treatment out of 180,000... which is, shall we say, deeply unsatisfying to put it mildly," Stanley said. 

Its not just about being satisfied, its about being healthy. Summit Jariwala is an asthma specialist at Montefiore. He says there are ways for asthma patients to improve their conditions, but it is especially important to remove mold if its in the home.  “Asthma, in theory, can be overthrown, but it beomes a little tougher if the environment isn't great," Jariwala said. 

Ayliphelet says mold and moisture are not going anywhere in her home. Its especially upsetting for her to watch her daughters go through it. “I don’t want them being 16, 17,18 getting ready to go to college and still have to walk around  with a nebulizer and asthma inhalers. That’s my biggest fear - they’re not gonna get past this, they’re not gonna get better.”

Ayliphelet's daughters go to an asthma specialist regularly. He doesn’t promise her that her daughters will outgrow asthma. 

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