Air Thick with Calls to Action, as Residential Ventilation Advocates Forge Ahead

A flyer announces the March 13 event. Image courtesy 2324 Chelsea Tenant Association

BY WINNIE McCROY | On the afternoon of Sat., March 13, candidates for City office reconvened via Zoom with concerned Chelsea tenants to respond to some of the questions about the health and safety of all New Yorkers during the extended lockdown regarding ventilation in residential housing, raised during the original Feb. 27 Zoom call and resultant article.

“We take the concerns of inadequate air ventilation extremely seriously and have been speaking with City and State agencies on ways we can strengthen air ventilation rules and requirements in occupied buildings,” read a March 13th letter from New York State Senator Brad Hoylman, New York State Assembly Member Richard Gottfried, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who were not present at the event.

Those four high-level elected officials acknowledged that providing sufficient air ventilation was one of the most effective ways to mitigate the spread of COVID and other infectious diseases. They promised to thoroughly review the recommendations presented to their offices, and to discuss changes they can make to improve building ventilation requirements.

And just like that, the forum was off and running as candidates answered a series of pre-submitted questions as well as those posed by the audience. Participants included Manhattan District Attorney (DA) candidate Diana Florence, who was present at the first event. Her fellow DA candidate, Eliza Orlins, attended, but Tahanie Aboushi did not. City Council District 3 candidates Leslie Boghosian Murphy and Arthur Schwartz Zoomed in to answer questions, but Mayoral candidate Rep. Ray McGuire submitted only written responses. Mayoral candidate Carlos Menchaca RSVP’d, but cancelled at the last minute.

“I am the only candidate in my race where the environment is a cornerstone of my campaign,” said Boghosian Murphy, a longtime Chelsea resident and Community Board 4 (CB4) member. “Neither of the safety sign-offs for construction… currently includes ventilation guidelines. And I think we can all agree that self-compliance is not a reliable model.”

Boghosian Murphy said that the NYC Department of Buildings (DOB) must issue guidelines in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), noting that there needs to be an easy way to submit complaints, and clear penalties for scofflaws. But currently neither the New York State Business Reopening Safety Plan, which contractors must sign and abide by, nor the New York State Business Affirmation Form, includes ventilation guidelines as a part of their COVID regulations. She believes that one agency—ideally, the DOB—should govern the implementation and enforcement of appropriate ventilation guidelines.

“Oversight and follow-up are some of the strongest tools that we have as City Council Members to ensure these safety standards are truly being met,” said Boghosian Murphy. “We could coordinate drop-in inspectors like we do with food service now and ensure that ventilation is on the checklist.”

City Council District 3 Candidate Leslie Boghosian Murphy. | Screenshot by Winnie McCroy

Boghosian Murphy recalled how when COVID hit, we quickly discovered enhanced ventilation was key, because one of the most common ways COVID is spread is by the airborne transmission of small particles, which can stay airborne for hours and travel far. She said we must do three things: Increase the rate of air intake and replace it with greater filtration; use HEPA filters; and have serious oversight and maintenance. Rather than endanger people’s health, now is the time to invest in better filters and safety measures.

No More Putting Profits Before People | Florence, an attorney and former chief of the Manhattan DA’s Construction Fraud Task Force, said the problem was less the “lone wolf” that may have fibbed on one application when minor problems occurred, and more the serial offenders.

“When people cut corners in one spot, they are cutting them across the board,” said Florence. “Once they know they can get away with things and that the cost if they are caught is small, they factor it into their business model. They make a calculus and at the end of the day, decide to put profit ahead of people… And certain powerful people have been trained to think that they can get away with it!”

Florence said wealthy real estate companies and building owners had learned throughout the years that being above-board with tenants and City agencies was costly. Since no one was checking to ensure that work was done properly, and because penalties for non-compliance were negligible, few volunteered to do the right or legal thing.

In order for things to change, she said, we need to alter the building codes and put some teeth into current enforcement statutes. Where in the past it may have been a cost-saving measure for DOB to allow owners to self-certify, said Florence, “We need to be clear that self-certification has gone so far afield from saving costs to taxpayers that we are now suffering because of it.”

Florence said we should join the forces of regulatory and criminal enforcement to ensure that any false or misleading certifications to government agencies will be referred for criminal prosecution. Just having that infrastructure will change the way business is done, Florence believes. She understands this fraud has lived in Housing Court for far too long, and once and for all must be taken to the Criminal Courts.

Manhattan District Attorney candidate Diane Florence. | Screenshot by Winnie McCroy

“It’s incumbent on your DA to prioritize this type of fraud and provide a mechanism for people to directly access to the office to work with their DA to ensure that if there’s fraud and abuse or harassment your DA will use them,” said Florence, vowing she would do that if elected DA.

Although vying against Florence for Manhattan DA, Orlins agreed with her that it is “critical that you have a DA who will fight for tenants.” As a public defender, she noted, “I have seen how the criminal justice system perpetuates inequities, how it creates one set of rules for the powerful elites and another for the poor.”

As an example, she cited statistics that show how those at Rikers Island had COVID infection rates much higher than regular New Yorkers, because of a lack of adequate ventilation at those sites. True public safety is not possible, she said, without factoring in safety in people’s environment, including clean water, good ventilation and air quality, and the absence of lead paint and toxic mold.

Orlins promised to “hold powerful actors into account,” saying that “[Manhattan DA] Cy Vance has pulled punches when it comes to holding [people] accountable… But I have been standing up to powerful interests my whole career as a public defender and I won’t be intimidated.”

Tipped off about the Zoom forum by Chelsea Community News a scant five minutes before it launched (when his path crossed with that of our founder/editor, when they attended the Grand Opening of Diamond’s Discount, USA), Greenwich Village District Leader (since 1995) and longtime CB2 member Schwartz unexpectedly phoned in from the driver’s seat of his parked car. Schwartz, who spent most of his career as a union lawyer working for health and safety issues, said our City needs leaders rooted in the community who have proven track records of winning.

Schwartz found it unbelievable that more attention is paid to workplace safety through the auspices of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) than to safety in residential buildings. He believes we need to create the residential equivalent of OSHA in New York City, to allow people to file administrative complaints without having to hire a “fancy lawyer.” Referencing the NYC Accelerator Program that provides consulting and financial assistance to retrofit buildings to more carbon-neutral HVAC systems, Schwartz floated the idea of providing people tax credits to help pay for these expensive retrofits.

Standing Up for New Yorkers | Those candidates present on the Zoom call promised that if elected, they would work hard to fix problems, like the poor ventilation issues that had inspired the forum.

Murphy said that despite that, as Twomey noted, “Air is invisible,” she would advocate for good residential ventilation, adding the issue to the list she’d take up in Albany.

Orlins said that although she’d spent her career as a public defender rather than a prosecutor, she had “seen the way bad landlords hurt my clients and has fought a criminal legal system that is unjust and not keeping us safe. We need someone who is authentically committed to standing up for New Yorkers.”

Florence vowed to continue working within the current enforcement structure by going out into the community wherever tenants reported problems. Then she goes back to DOB or the HPD to check, for example, why there’s still mold in a hallway despite the owners filing that it’s been cleared.

“I have a Housing Bureau where any person can come to my office and talk about what’s happening at their building,” said Florence. “If it’s owned by a company that previously lied about a violation, we will look at that as a pattern. That’s how you build cases—not via one or two situations that might be attributed to oversight or miscommunication, but by finding patterns. That is where you attack the fraud.”

Asked about who might best handle ventilation issues, Schwartz posited that the NYC Department of Environmental Protection would be ideal. He cited his previous work with them on asbestos litigation issues, particularly the 1989 Con Edison steampipe explosion that infused an entire Gramercy Park building with asbestos, leading to a $90M remediation and cleanup.

City Council District 3 candidate Arthur Schwartz. | Screenshot by Winnie McCroy

Calling the DOB “an incredibly difficult agency to work with and through,” Schwartz proposed that another agency like OSHA create an administrative complaint system with inspectors who issue violations, so it was not incumbent on the complainer to prosecute the problem.

Florence agreed with Schwartz that “The DOB site has rampant falsifications with no one checking, and that’s the problem with self-certification: It’s on their honor.” But she also opined that a city OSHA was not the answer. Florence noted that in the early 1970s, New York State had opted to have a state OSHA that only applied to public employees. The rest of us have to work under the federal OSHA, which Florence called, “an underfunded agency that has become a toothless organization. We can’t rely on them, and even if we wanted to create a city OSHA, we are pre-empted by City law.”

Most panelists agreed that changes needed to be made within the DOB to address these issues. Orlins said we need to cut back on bureaucratic red tape, and for the DA to begin investing in keeping New Yorkers safe. She said current regulations can’t be adequately enforced without DOB hiring 500 inspectors to spot-check these self-certifications.

John Twomey, CEO of Indoor Air Quality Champs who presented at the Feb. 27 forum, once again spoke about the failures inherent in self-certification.

“Good luck getting anyone from DOB to come inspect your building; more likely HPD would come look at your ventilation system. It’s mandated, it’s just not enforced. They all self-certify, and it’s not right,” said Twomey. “The ventilation system is literally the lungs of your building. Even beyond COVID, there’s mold and carbon monoxide—these systems are in place to alleviate those things. So, it’s not that it’s not mandated, it’s that it’s not inspected or enforced. It’s like the speed limit. You’re meant to go 65 mph, but if you go over that speed, cops will pull you over. The problem with this issue is there’s no one pulling people over.”

Are City Leaders Listening? | The fact that no incumbent elected officials tuned in was not lost on the participants. Even some of the candidates took a bye. Mayoral candidate McGuire submitted the answers to nine questions organizers had posed, regarding issues of revised DOB building codes, self-certification, inspections, educational training, establishing mandated ventilation guidelines, improving coordination between City agencies, and resolving complaints. Few others did, and the audience noted clearly who cared enough to show up, even virtually.

Florence even went so far as to say that if DAs needed a place to start their investigations, they could start with the New York Public Advocate’s Annual List of 100 Worst Landlords by searching the filings for patterns of misleading self-certifications. Twomey said that his landlord was on this list on the year he got sick from poor ventilation in his apartment building, prompting him to found Indoor Air Quality Champs. He said that if a ventilation expert like him couldn’t find help, what kind of shot did the average layperson have? He even took umbrage at the City recently measuring school ventilation safety via the toilet paper test.

“You need numbers to quantify proper ventilation,” said Twomey. “HPD showing up and asking to use your toilet paper is a joke.”

“Part of it is doing forums like this, talking about the issues and getting the mayor to prioritize it,” said Florence. “It needs to be set up where it could be criminal if they are complicit in this… If there is corruption, either on the inspectors’ side by taking bribes, or because of shoddy practices.”

Florence pointed to a situation at the DOB where unscrupulous site safety managers were selling their licenses for others to certify that buildings were safe when they were not. There was no way for legitimate site safety managers to check if their license had been stolen, and no ability to see where false certification had occurred. So, the DOB revamped how their licensing was done, given managers the ability to check whether their license was being used.

“It’s just simple things like this, as well as having these discussions and having the press elevate this,” said Florence. “And I think it’s notable who came and who didn’t come… and those people who didn’t even bother to respond to your questions. This is an important issue; it’s the air that you breathe.”

Manhattan District Attorney candidate Eliza Orlins. | Screenshot by Winnie McCroy

“Who shows up and is willing to listen even if not an expert, that’s what matters,” echoed Orlins.

“The candidates that were there today showed that they care about this issue and are eager to fight for what is right,” added Twomey. “The fact that you can’t see air will not remain the reason that landlords are able to cut corners at the expense of their tenants health and safety anymore.”

Twomey added that, “It was eye-opening that the incumbents did not show up… They currently have the power to stop allowing landlords to ignore and/or disregard the code-required airflow regulations that every single New Yorker not only deserves, but needs, to remain safe in their homes.”

John Twomey, CEO of Indoor Air Quality Champs. | Screenshot by Winnie McCroy

Pham echoed this sentiment, bemoaning that, “No elected officials were here today, and it was cause for pause. We had reached out to them starting last summer about the situation with sealed windows in our building…. We ask each of you to now reach out to your elected officials.”

The forum was organized by the 2324 Chelsea Tenant Association and sponsored by Manhattan Community Board 4, Housing, Health and Human Services (an MCB4 Sub-Committee), Save Chelsea, Chelsea Council of Block Associations, West Side Neighborhood Alliance, 308 West 30th Street Tenant Association, 2324 Chelsea Tenant Association, and the Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization Committee of the American Planning Association, NY Metro Chapter.

 

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