According to court documents filed Wednesday, federal prosecutors in Manhattan are currently investigating environmental health and safety conditions, including “elevated blood-lead levels,” in public housing buildings maintained by the New York City Housing Authority.
The fact that the Department of Justice is investigating blood-lead levels in NYCHA housing was disclosed in a letter from the office of Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, to Judge Deborah A. Batts, requesting a court order compelling the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to share information and documents with prosecutors in response to a “civil investigative demand.”
The health department is “cooperating with the investigation,” a spokesman for the city’s Law Department, Nick Paolucci, told the New York Times on Wednesday night. Even so, DHMH can’t comply with the U.S. attorney’s request without a court order—thus the need for a letter from the judge.
A sizeable chunk of the authority’s (paltry and mismanaged) funding is provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (though not as much as in the past), which is what gives Bharara’s office jurisdiction over the local housing authority in the first place. More than a half-million New Yorkers live in NYCHA buildings, the vast majority of which are more than forty years old, and which are carrying approximately seventeen billion dollars in unmet capital needs.
As it turns out, prosecutors are also investigating whether NYCHA made false claims (“for payment,” according to the judge’s letter) to HUD relating to health and safety conditions. Over the summer, when he presented his plan to save public housing, Mayor Bill de Blasio called upon the federal government to re-invest in affordable housing and infrastructure. This probably wasn’t what he meant, exactly, but it might have to do.
Specifically, the U.S. attorney wants to know where and when any individuals living in NYCHA housing with elevated blood-lead levels have been identified, and whether any environmental investigations, evaluations, or analysis followed. (They’re also looking into the mold and rodent problems.)
The crisis in Flint, Michigan, has foregrounded what has been a long-extant issue in many communities around the country. An investigation by the USA Today network published on Wednesday identified almost 2,000 water systems spanning all 50 states where dangerously high levels of lead have been reported in the past four years. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is expected to release a report on Thursday showing elevated lead levels in the water in Newark’s public schools.
It’s not just NYCHA that the U.S. attorney is looking into, either: The investigation includes elevated blood-lead levels, mold, and rodents in shelters run by the city’s Department of Homeless Services. “When you’re under investigation by Preet Bharara,” Ritchie Torres, a Bronx Democrat and chairman of the City Council’s Public Housing Committee, told the Times, “that’s as serious as it gets.”