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NYCHA backs look at fan plan to head off new COVID wave in public housing

November 18, 2020 Greg B. Smith, THE CITY
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This story was originally published on Nov. 17 by THE CITY. Sign up here to get the latest stories from THE CITY delivered to you each morning.

NYCHA Chair Gregory Russ says he’s now “open” to an independent study of how aging ventilation systems affect coronavirus spread in public housing, after THE CITY revealed many of the hardest-hit complexes are stuck with old, often-malfunctioning fans.

Russ signaled his support for a drill-down in a letter he sent Monday to two of the state’s top Democrats, Sen. Kristen Gillibrand and Rep. Nydia Velázquez. Both had demanded NYCHA take swift action with a new wave of COVID-19 anticipated as temperatures drop.

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Gillibrand and Velázquez wrote to Russ Nov. 2, citing THE CITY’s reporting on how all but two of the 47 NYCHA developments with the highest rates of COVID-19 infections across NYCHA’s portfolio use old mechanical exhaust systems.

They called on Russ to immediately team up with an outside expert to examine the issue. On Monday, Russ agreed that a study would be helpful, and asked the two elected officials to drum up federal funding to pay for it.

NYCHA Chair Gregory Russ speaks with tenants at the Betances Houses in The Bronx, Aug. 14, 2019. Photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

“The study of the impact of building ventilation may have on COVID-19 illnesses has citywide implications and could benefit the owners and managers of all building types — subsidized and non-subsidized,” he wrote.

NYCHA has long planned to upgrade the ventilation systems in the two-thirds of its 172,000 apartments that rely on exhaust fans.

The systems are old and often don’t provide adequate air flow to siphon off moisture that accumulates in bathrooms and kitchens. NYCHA had agreed to fix the problem as part of a lawsuit settlement aimed at stamping out toxic mold festering in apartments.

Work falls behind

As THE CITY reported in August, the authority had initially agreed to fix all its malfunctioning roof fans and clean out clogged ducts by May 2019 — but last year changed plans and decided to replace all 10,000 fans.

The agency set a June 2021 deadline for the work, but that effort fell behind schedule.

Then the pandemic struck. In the first six weeks, more than 7,800 NYCHA tenants became infected with COVID-19 — including 1,241 who died of it.

Most were living in buildings that relied on the exhaust-fan systems — including 45 of 47 developments with the highest rates of infection across NYCHA’s portfolio.

Health experts say good airflow is helpful in curbing the spread of the virus. Gillibrand and Velázquez noted in their letter to Russ that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “stresses the importance of indoor ventilation to reduce the risk of falling ill from COVID-19.”

Senator Kirsten Gillbrand speaks in Manhattan during the 50th anniversary of Pride. Photo: lev radin/Shutterstock

But during a City Council hearing last month, NYCHA management dismissed those concerns, contending that the authority’s exhaust fan systems don’t circulate air in apartments.

In his letter to Gillibrand and Velázquez, Russ repeated that assertion, writing, “These fans are not intended to cycle air through an apartment as described in CDC guidance.” But, he conceded, “They do help ventilate bathrooms and some kitchens.”

Asked at the October Council hearing about THE CITY’s analysis of buildings with higher rates of COVID-19 infection, NYCHA General Manager Vito Mustaciuolo contended the neighborhoods where these developments are located also had higher rates of infection.

But he then noted NYCHA had done no analysis to back up that claim. Gillibrand and Velázquez soon after demanded the study examining the air quality and circulation in NYCHA apartments, but only “in consultation with members of the scientific and medical community.”

“Their participation is necessary to overcome NYCHA’s ongoing credibility problem and ensure public confidence in the results,” they wrote.

‘A safe place to call home’

In his response Monday, Russ embraced the idea of a “third-party study by a scientific or medical institution that would also factor in building ventilation in the neighborhood surrounding the high-infection developments.”

He asked that Congress “fund the appropriate experts to conduct the research.”

Velázquez, whose district includes parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, told THE CITY Tuesday that “no options should be left off the table” to obtain money for the study.

She noted her pending bill to provide $70 billion “for public housing capital repairs and upgrades around the country. I will continue to utilize all avenues to push for needed resources and repairs so all residents can have a safe place to call home.”

Rep. Nydia Velázquez speaks in Manhattan, Sept. 7, 2020. Photo: lev radin/Shutterstock

Last month, city Comptroller Scott Stringer, who is running for mayor, also challenged the Housing Authority to come up with a plan regarding ventilation and other issues — such as stuck elevators — that he said could contribute to the spread of the virus in public housing.

He also charged NYCHA has yet to adequately ensure its boilers will be ready for winter.

NYCHA officials did not respond to his ventilation and elevator concerns but said they “disagreed with the comptroller’s assessment” on delays in addressing heat issues, asserting that the authority was on top of the situation.

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