Program to Combat Asthma Would LEAN on LANDLORDS to take steps to eliminate garbage, MOLD & vermin — all factors that have been linked to asthma

By JAVIER C. HERNANDEZ
May 11, 2010

For decades, public health experts have tried — and mostly failed — to contain an asthma epidemic that afflicts many New Yorkers living in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

But now, the City Council hopes to significantly curtail the spread of the lung disease by forcing landlords at some of the most badly maintained buildings to clean up their premises.

Under legislation to be introduced on Wednesday, the Council would require owners of 175 apartment buildings to take steps to eliminate garbage, mold and vermin — all factors that have been linked to asthma.

If they do not comply, the city would file liens against the properties, effectively billing landlords for the work required.

The City Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, said swift action was needed to stop the public health crisis caused by asthma, which affects more than 400,000 New Yorkers, many of them children.

“It is in no way shape or form getting better, and it is something we need to get addressed,” Ms. Quinn said in an interview. “Not every landlord is a good landlord in the city of New York. We need to have stricter laws to deal with those bad apples.”

The city would focus its initial efforts on private buildings of all sizes, with the most violations involving garbage, insects, mold, mice and rats. Landlords would be given three months to make changes; if they failed to comply, the city would do the work itself and charge them for it.

The effort, described as an 18-month pilot project, would serve as a public health experiment of sorts. Under the legislation, the city would require landlords to use different methods to treat problems in their buildings — having one group use bleach to eliminate mold, for instance, while asking others to focus on repairing pipe leaks that contribute to mold. Researchers would later study the results to see which strategies were most effective.

Under the program, tenants would also be offered training on how to reduce asthma risks.

In recent years, the city has taken an increasingly aggressive stance toward landlords who allow buildings to fall into disrepair. The proposal to be released Wednesday echoes a 2007 law that gave the city broad power to force landlords with histories of code violations to make significant repairs. But that law focuses on major code violations, like a lack of heat, while the proposed legislation is specifically tailored to combat asthma.

A landlord challenged the 2007 legislation in court, arguing that the city had overstepped its authority. Many landlord groups, however, supported the effort, and the city ultimately prevailed.

On Tuesday, it remained unclear whether landlords would rally behind the asthma legislation, which would impose significant expenses on building owners at a time when they say they are struggling to stay afloat amid high vacancy rates.

Frank Ricci, a spokesman for the Rent Stabilization Association, one of the city’s largest landlord groups, said he was reviewing the bill. Though he said the legislation had merits, including the fact that it was a pilot program, he noted that tenants sometimes shared the blame for a building’s shoddy condition.

“It’s not always the owner being a bad guy,” Mr. Ricci said. “Sometimes they have tenants who don’t cooperate.”

Ms. Quinn said she was confident that the bill, co-sponsored by Councilwoman Rosie Mendez of Manhattan, would earn the support of landlords and garner enough votes to pass.

“If you are a landlord that takes good care of your building,” she said, “you have nothing to worry about.”

A spokesman for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said his office was reviewing the legislation and had not decided whether to support it.

If the bill passes, the city will probably focus on buildings in high-poverty areas, where asthma cases are most prevalent.

For residents in those areas, the sights are familiar: walls and ceilings overtaken by mold, hallways strewn with trash, rats and mice nipping at everything in sight.

Maria Quintanilla, a home attendant from Bushwick, Brooklyn, who has asthma, lives in an apartment with broken doors and windows. She said they had not been replaced in 10 years.

When her roommate developed asthma seven years ago, she became concerned that the poor state of her apartment was causing the illness, she said. Ms. Quintanilla began throwing items away, hoping to get rid of whatever was causing the condition.

“The living conditions are very, very poor,” she said.

A. E. Velez contributed reporting.

nytimes.com

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