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In East Village, onslaught of buildings contaminated by noxious lead dust continues

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A privately-owned East Fourth Street building is the latest in the area where tenants suffered lead exposure

322 East 4th Street in the East Village
Caroline Spivack/Curbed NY

An East Village apartment building owned by a Hollywood accountant tested for abnormally high levels of lead, after renovations caused dust to coat spaces throughout the six-story building—exposing tenants, including a two-year-old child, to the noxious metal.

In March, a Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH)-commissioned report obtained by the Cooper Square Committee, a tenants’ rights group, found elevated lead levels in 13 of 17 samples swabbed at 332 East Fourth Street. The report, dated March 19, showed elevated lead levels in the building’s vestibule, hallways, and staircases, with one sample taken from the tiled-floor of a hallway testing for 214 micrograms of lead per square foot—the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s standard is below 40 micrograms per square foot. A spokesperson from DOHMH also confirmed that 13 of the samples contained lead over EPA standards and a referral was made to the agency.

The case is the latest example of the city’s struggle to crack down on private landlords who expose their tenants to lead during renovations, despite the de Blasio administration’s concerted campaign against lead poisoning, and the City Council passing bills to strengthen lead laws. The problem has bedeviled buildings in the East Village and Lower East Side with infamous landlords including Steve Croman, Samy Mahfar, and Raphael Toledano unleashing hazardous dust on their tenants during renovations—a tactic often used to push out rent-regulated residents.

“This has become all too familiar in this community,” City Council member Carlina Rivera, who represents the two lower Manhattan neighborhoods, said at a Wednesday protest outside of the Fourth Street building. “We have wrote the laws, we have passed the laws, what we’re lacking right now is to enforce the laws. Whether it’s about lead, whether it’s about construction as harassment in general, it’s unforgivable that landlords continue to get away with this.”

The 28-unit rent-stabilized building sold in January for $14 million to Frontier Fourth Development LP listed at the address of accounting firm Bell and Company—with clients including A-list filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly, and basketball hall of famer Marv Albert—according to city property records. In February, tenants said the managing partner of the company, Evan Bell, introduced himself as the property’s new owner. He is also listed as the parcel’s owner in Department of Buildings records.

It wasn’t long before plans to renovate the building were filed with the city, including initial work to overhaul two apartments on the sixth floor. But when construction began in March, Theresa Kimm—who lives in the building with her two-year-old daughter—noticed a “fine coat of white dust in the staircase” after observing construction workers dragging out debris without protective gear. Worried about the health implications, tenants called the city. Test results for abnormally high lead levels came back for surfaces on each of the building’s six stories, according to the March report by Atlas Environmental Laboratory on behalf of the city.

Bell told Curbed in an email “we regret” the lead dust contamination and said a worker was hired to clean the building’s hallways and staircases, and that an independent company was brought in to test for lead and “found NO lead dust in the halls” and in a separate apartment.

“We are renovating [and] working very hard to protect tenants [and] improve a property that is over 100 years old [and] that has had no improvement for decades … We desire to provide quality housing [with] quality systems to as many people as we can,” Bell wrote in an email. “That is impossible [without] some construction [and] the mess that it provides.”

Department of Buildings (DOB) inspectors also visited the property the same day samples were collected and hit the property with a full stop-work order after discovering that renovation work in one of the building’s apartments “did not conform with the approved plans for the job,” according to DOB spokesperson Andrew Rudansky. An apartment, for instance, had undergone a complete gut demolition, rather than a partial renovation, and the Tenant Protection Plan and Safe Construction Bill of Rights, which are required by law, were not properly posted in public areas of the building or distributed to tenants. Three March violations were issued that have since been resolved, and the city has partially lifted the stop-work order so permits could be pulled to correct issues, according to Rudansky.

“DOB will continue to closely monitor the ongoing construction work at the property in order to protect the safety of tenants, workers and the public,” said Rudansky.

Fed-up tenants vented their frustrations about the crude construction at Wednesday’s protest. “Since Evan Bell purchased our building he has put at risk the most basic of tenant expectations, notably to live in a safe, contamination-free environment,” said Mark Roth, who has lived in a two-bedroom apartment there for 22 years. “Evan Bell’s rights and preroga​tives do not extend to the endangerment of our health, both physical and mental.”

Kimm, who has lived in her two-bedroom apartment for nine years, said that the episode made her wonder if her apartment that had not been painted in several years contained lead. She bought a home lead test and tested her daughter’s room. She was horrified to discover that paint chips from the wall—which was there long before Bell began operating the property—tested positive for lead and called the city for help on steps to remediate.

“I’ve spent sleepless nights working, calculating the numbers, ‘Where can we move? How much more can we afford to pay?’” Kimm said at the rally. “These days my moods fluctuate between anxiety, guilt, anger, and sometimes even despair and hopelessness.’”

On April 5, officials with DOHMH issued an order requiring “clean-up, safe work practices, and submission of clearance dust wipe sampling results after final clean-up” to the landlord. In the latest inspection by DOHMH on April 19, health officials observed no dust at the time, according to a spokesperson with the health department.

Exposure to the heavy metal can have severe consequences. In those six years old and younger, it can cause behavior and learning problems, slowed growth, anemia, and hearing issues. Lead in adults has been known to cause decreased kidney function, increased blood pressure, and reproductive problems in men and women, according to the EPA.

Laws already on the books, including Local Law 1 passed in 2004, are meant to ensure health and safety measures are taken to protect tenants. That law in particular requires landlords to find out if any children younger than six years old live in a building and inspect those apartments for lead paint hazards annually. And Lawmakers are working to enact tougher laws. The City Council passed a package of bills last month aimed at eliminating lead poisoning across the boroughs—the biggest overhaul of the city’s lead laws since 2004. But oftentimes, such laws are not enforced until tenants have already suffered exposure, said one legal expert.

“The fundamental issue remains why is it the administration refuses to get serious about enforcing this? There are laws on the books that should have prevented this from happening,” said Matthew Chachère, an expert on lead laws and an attorney with the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corp., referring to lead exposure at 332 East Fourth Street.

In January, the de Blasio administration unveiled a new initiative aimed at eliminating childhood lead exposure and says it will police private landlords. But the pledge came after the city dropped the ball for years at the New York City Housing Authority, where it failed to conduct lead paint inspections required by local and federal law before officials falsified federal documents on the tests. Now, the agency is in the midst of an $88 million effort to identify public housing apartments contaminated with lead paint using high-tech X-ray devices that can find the metal through multiple layers of paint.

“The administration really needs to step up and improve enforcement and City Council needs to hold the administration accountable now,” said Brandon Kielbasa, the director of organizing and policy with the Cooper Square Committee. “People should not run the risk of irrevocable developmental disabilities and other health problems because a landlord doesn’t want to slow down and do the process the right way.”