NYCHA Chair Grilled During Lead-Poisoning Hearing at City Council

The chair of the New York City Housing Authority faced a barrage of biting questions when she testified at a City Council hearing on Tuesday as she defended her agency’s failure to conduct lead inspections in public housing for four years. Shola Olatoye said that she regretted not informing the public with “more, sooner,” but rejected calls for her resignation.

Olatoye testified for nearly four hours, answering questions about her decision to conceal information from the public and sign off on federal paperwork that said inspections had been completed, even when she knew they had not been. She was interrupted constantly — sometimes by murmurs of disagreement, other times by shouts and chants. One man was removed from the City Hall chambers when he shouted repeatedly, “You’re killing our children!”

The City Council’s public housing committee met at City Hall on Tuesday to hear testimony from NYCHA Chair Shola Olatoye. (The Ink/Bo Hamby)

NYCHA suspended its annual lead inspections of public housing in 2012 when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released new guidelines about the evaluation and control of lead hazards in public housing. Olatoye, whose agency receives funding from H.U.D., said that the new guidelines were “misinterpreted” and that inspections were subsequently halted. Olatoye said she learned that her agency was out of compliance in 2016 and then began to implement a new inspection plan.

In October 2016, Olatoye signed and submitted a certificate of compliance to the federal government that falsely stated the city had inspected 55,000 apartments that potentially contained lead paint. Olatoye said she told H.U.D. by phone that the city was working towards compliance and that making that call was “sufficient” for her to sign the two-page document that claimed her agency had completed the inspections even though she knew it was false.

“I had no intention of filing a false certification,” said Olatoye when questioned by Council Member Richie Torres, the chair of the City Council’s public housing committee. “There was never any intent to mislead.”

Torres and several other council members attacked Olatoye for not informing the public of her department’s failures earlier. Olatoye knew her agency was not in compliance as early as April, 2016, according to a report from New York City’s Department of Investigation. That information wasn’t made public until last month, when the report was released.

NYCHA Chair Shola Olatoye meeting with press after her testimony. (The Ink/Bo Hamby)

Olatoye pushed back against Torres when asked why she hadn’t informed the City Council or the general public earlier.

“I was trying to balance a federal investigation and the execution of a remedial action plan,” she said, referring to her cooperation with an investigation by the Department of Justice. The D.O.J. investigated Olatoye’s false compliance certification, while the city investigated NYCHA’s failure to conduct inspections. Children aged 6 and under lived in around 4,200 of the 55,000 units needing inspection. Children in that age range are most at risk of ingesting chipped lead paint or dust.

Torres wasn’t satisfied with Olatoye’s answer on that and many other questions.

“You can be held responsible for your failure to inform the general public about the failure of your agency to comply with local and federal laws on lead safety,” he said.

During the second round of questioning, Public Advocate Letitia James repeated her request that Olatoye resign, which was followed by loud applause and even some chants of “lock her up.”

Gloria Wright, who is the president of her NYCHA building’s tenant association on 116th Street in Harlem, said she was not looking to blame Olatoye or the housing agency. She attended the hearing to hear what’s planned to get inspections back on track.

“I just want to know that they’re going to clear up some of this mess,” she said. “I’m tired of it.”

Members of the public and press watched as NYCHA Chair Shola Olatoye testified on Tuesday. (The Ink/Bo Hamby)

Outside the chambers, the mother of a 4-year-old boy who tested positive for lead poisoning answered questions in front of cameras and press. Sherron Paige, who said she has lived in public housing her whole life, was not happy with the way Olatoye was skirting around questions. She attended the City Council hearing with her lawyer, who filed a class-action lawsuit against the city in October.

“She’s technically not answering the questions,” Paige said. “I just want the truth.”

Back inside the chambers, the council members continued to grill Olatoye. Council Member Jumaane Williams, who represents parts of Brooklyn, said he has spent months getting residents and tenants to trust NYCHA and programs like NextGen, which NYCHA calls a “strategic plan to preserve and protect public housing.” The lead-poisoning scandal, he said, will only hurt that progress.

“I don’t know how this body can trust NYCHA again.”

The agency will look to rebuild that trust by creating a new compliance department to ensure NYCHA follows local and federal regulations. NYCHA will also offer free lead testing to some 2,000 apartments where lead removal was already done in 2016 because the workers had not been fully trained in proper removal procedures.