Rising sea levels leave public housing residents struggling with mold

Agencies are struggling to figure out how leaky roofs and damp walls fit in with larger flood-proofing plans.
An abandoned port building in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York
The Red Hook waterfront in Brooklyn, New York, features abandoned warehouses and a few public-housing developments. But sea level rise is making the neighborhood close to unlivable for some. demerzel21/Deposit Photos

Lili Pike is a freelance journalist covering climate change. Previously, she was a staff writer for China Dialogue. This story originally featured on Undark.

When splotches of mold surfaced on Brandy Cabrera’s shower wall in September 2019, the 37-year-old bus attendant began to worry about her teenage son, who is autistic. “He has got to breathe in all that mold while he is taking a bath,” Cabrera says, referring to his longstanding morning routine.

To fix the leak causing the mold, Cabrera followed protocol, contacting the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), which owns the Red Hook Houses, the public housing complex in Brooklyn where she has lived for the past 13 years. But Cabrera says that workers just plastered over her wall. The next month, she contacted them again to stop the spreading mold, but no one came.

Finally, she decided to sue the agency in one of the city’s housing courts.

Cabrera’s NYCHA lawsuit is one of hundreds from residents in the Red Hook Houses filed over the past four years to address mold and leaks, according to new data provided by the Red Hook Community Justice Center, a community court that hears cases and provides residents with support on issues such as housing. Red Hook is the second largest public housing development in New York City, home to roughly 6,000 people.

“There are significant health hazards at the Red Hook Houses that are likely causing lasting damage to residents’ health and wellbeing,” says Ross Joy, a program manager at the center, in an email to Undark. “No matter who your landlord is, all tenants have the right to a home that doesn’t make them sick and is well-maintained.”

Mold and leaks have been perennial problems in Red Hook and the other New York City public housing complexes, many of which were built in the mid-1900s and haven’t received sufficient funding for renovation in recent decades. Cabrera’s mold, for instance, came from a leak several floors above.

Neglected infrastructure, already a source of mold, is also making public housing more vulnerable to climate change. For instance, the roofs leaks in the Red Hook Houses have left the complex more vulnerable to water damage during storms, which in turn can lead to more mold.

The housing agency is in the midst of a $3 billion campaign—funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)—to repair 35 developments that were damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and prepare them for future flooding. But NYCHA residents argue that broader building renovations are needed to address problems like mold.

After the storm, the city government remediated mold in thousands of public housing units. But community organizations reported elevated mold levels in the Red Hook Houses and other developments months after the storm. FEMA has funded roof repairs, which will help alleviate the problem, but it did not directly fund mold remediation in the Red Hook Houses.

Public housing’s heightened exposure to the effects of climate change is visible beyond New York, for instance in mold outbreaks that followed hurricanes in New Orleans and Houston. And with models predicting stronger storm surges and more intense rains, flooding could pose further mold-related health risks in public housing and exacerbate the affordable housing crisis.

The debate over the FEMA funding in New York City reflects wider tensions across the United States over the investment in future climate resilience—which includes expensive sea walls, floodproofing, and elevating electrical systems above the flood line—when underfunding for repairs of existing structures has made some public housing units a health threat today.

Mold is not a benign blight. Whether from crumbling infrastructure or floods, exposure to dampness and mold is linked to asthma exacerbation, coughing, wheezing, and upper respiratory symptoms, according to a 2011 review published in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Researchers also found strong associations between early exposure to mold and the development of childhood asthma in a 2012 study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. But the scientific evidence is not strong enough to say mold outright causes asthma in children, says Paulo Pina, a pediatrician at New York University Langone Health who serves the Red Hook community.

In New York, public housing developments like those in Red Hook have a disproportionately high reported rate of asthma compared to more affluent neighborhoods. In the census tract that includes the Red Hook Houses, asthma was the primary reason for 30 out of 1,000 emergency room visits compared to a state average of 18, according to government data from 2011 to 2013.

Mold grows on the walls of a bathroom
Mold grows on the walls of Brandy Cabrera’s bathroom. Cabrera is one of hundreds of tenants in Brooklyn’s Red Hook Houses that have sued the New York City Housing Authority due to leaks and mold. Lili Pike

The connection between mold and asthma in government-assisted housing extends beyond New York City. Renters across the country who receive government assistance are more likely to have at least one child with asthma compared to households that are not supported by the government, according to a 2017 analysis of American housing survey data by the Urban Institute. The subsidized homes have higher rates of two asthma triggers: mold and tobacco smoke.

Alongside exposure to pests, such as cockroaches, and air pollution from vehicles, “mold is probably an important component in the total picture of what leads to a higher burden of asthma in low-income communities,” says Matthew Perzanowski, an associate professor of environmental health at Columbia University who studies asthma.

The problems caused by asthma can ripple through the communities, Perzanowski says, causing absences from school and, perhaps, parents missing work. And in rare cases, the effects are worse. “Kids do die from asthma and that happens more commonly in low-income neighborhoods,” he adds. “It’s not very common, but it’s tragic when it does.”

Hurricane Sandy showed how flooding can exacerbate mold issues in low-lying public housing complexes. According to a 2014 community survey across six NYCHA housing developments including Red Hook, 34 percent of residents reported having visible mold before Sandy while 45 percent reported having mold after.

These patterns have also played out in other cities. Two months after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sampled homes across the city and found that 46 percent contained visible mold. And in 2017, when Hurricane Harvey inundated Houston, mold broke out across the city including in public housing complexes.

Recent research suggests that mold has long been a health concern after flooding. For instance, in a survey of 3,835 New Yorkers, those who reported mold or dampness in their homes after Hurricane Sandy were twice as likely to have lower respiratory symptoms—wheezing, a persistent cough, and shortness of breath—compared to those who had no exposure, according to a 2018 study published in Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness.

Climate change is projected to increase rainfall, coastal flooding, and the intensity and frequency of hurricanes on the east coast of the U.S. With more flooding, the conditions will be ripe for mold growth. “I mean, certainly anybody who deals with a flooding situation, they should sort of forewarn people about returning to their homes,” says Robert Brackbill, one of the authors of the 2018 study and the director of research for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s World Trade Center Health Registry. Homeowners and renters, Brackbill adds, should “be aware that there might be mold.”

As climate change heightens flooding risks, public housing is particularly vulnerable: Nationwide nearly one in 10 public housing units lies in a flood plain, according to research from New York University’s Furman Center.

In New York, the slow recovery of public housing post-Sandy shows the complexity of addressing mold after a storm. A particular issue is when new mold is layered on top of existing mold—the legacy of aging infrastructure.

Mold has been a longstanding issue across NYCHA properties. In a 2009 survey, 40 percent of respondents from the Red Hook Houses reported that their apartments had mold at some point.

After Sandy, the city addressed some of the mold. NYCHA inspected apartments and cleaned more than 5,400 units, according to a city government report. But community organizations in several NYCHA developments reported that serious mold growth persisted two years after the storm.

Although NYCHA received $3 billion to repair Sandy damage, the agency reports that $32 billion in “major repairs” are needed across their housing portfolio due to a decrease in state and federal funding for the agency’s operations and capital projects since 1998.

In Red Hook, despite community reports highlighting mold issues, FEMA did not fund mold remediation because first floor apartments were above the flood line, according to Joy Sinderbrand, vice president of NYCHA’s Recovery and Resilience Department.

Valerie Novack, a fellow at the progressive think tank Center for American Progress, isn’t surprised. After reviewing FEMA reports and attending various FEMA-sponsored events, Novack says, the agency “will be flat-out honest and say, you know, what we will provide you will not make you whole.” But, she adds, “unfortunately I don’t think that cities and states are necessarily planning with that same understanding in mind.”

Years after Sandy, the problem persists. Between 2016 and 2019, city inspections ordered by the Housing Court in cases like Cabrera’s found 202 mold and 319 leak violations, according to data gathered by the Red Hook Community Justice Center. Of the mold violations, city inspectors classified 19 percent as immediately hazardous, meaning NYCHA is required to remediate the situation within 24 hours.

The Red Hook Houses are not an outlier. Over the 2019 summer quarter alone, NYCHA reported more than 100,000 work orders for leaks and excessive moisture, almost 30,000 of which remained unresolved as the quarter closed, according to data released through Baez v. NYCHA, a federal class-action lawsuit filed against the agency in 2013.

In the Baez case, the judge compelled NYCHA to address the issues underlying the mold outbreaks rather than doing surface repairs. But community advocates are not convinced. “The reason why the mold is going to continue to be an ongoing conversation is because even though NYCHA has changed up how quickly they respond and address the issue, it is still a surface job,” says Tevina Willis, a Red Hook House resident and lead organizer of community building at the Red Hook Initiative. “The problem is the structures of the buildings—they’re just old.”

As part of their FEMA-funded Sandy repairs, NYCHA has an opportunity to not only repair damaged buildings, but address some of these infrastructure issues, fortifying the buildings for future storms. In an email to Undark, Barbara Brancaccio, NYCHA’s chief communications officer, notes that the agency has added new roofs with extra waterproofing to more than 130 buildings.

The agency says the roofs will help slow mold growth. At a groundbreaking ceremony for roof repairs in Red Hook in 2017, Shola Olatoye, the chair of NYCHA at the time, said: “If you cannot seal the buildings from water, you have issues of mold, you have issues of peeling paint, you have issues of plaster. And then you have the real-life potential health impacts that affect our residents as well.”

Yet roofs and other new climate resilience construction don’t directly address apartments that already have mold. “There is more than one source of water intrusion into the building,” Sinderbrand says. “Roofs are certainly one of them, and that’s one that we were able to get funded from FEMA. FEMA did not fund some of the other needs in the buildings, and there are certainly some other significant ones.”

For instance, in Cabrera’s case, the workers who attempted to address the mold in her bathroom reported that the leak was coming from the fifth floor.

“Our roofs are being repaired,” Willis says, “so hopefully that will be an improvement. But so much damage has already been done.” While residents understand the focus on flood protection, she adds, “we need some advocacy for repairs for these buildings.”

Mold grows on the walls of a bathroom
Mold spreading throughout Brandy Cabrera’s shower in Brooklyn’s Red Hook Houses. Lili Pike

Her comment reflects a broader sentiment expressed across NYCHA housing, Sinderbrand says, “because it is really frustrating to people that there is money being spent on what might not be the greatest—what’s perceived to be the greatest—need for development.”

Whenever possible, NYCHA tries to secure additional funding to renovate buildings while the FEMA-funded construction is underway, according to Sinderbrand. In Coney Island in Brooklyn, for instance, a community center was scheduled for Sandy repairs, but it also had backed up sewage unrelated to the storm. NYCHA managed to secure additional funding for new piping so that the building would be fully functional after the FEMA repairs were completed.

Beyond New York, conditions have been worsening in both public housing and subsidized private housing supported by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. When storms hit, some cities, rather than repairing the damage, have failed to build back planned public housing, or decided not to rebuild at all. A decade after Hurricane Ike hit Houston in 2008, just 154 affordable housing units have been built to replace damaged units because wealthier residents blocked the city’s efforts to build new developments in their neighborhoods. Ten years after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the number of families living in public housing had dropped from 5,000 to 1,900 after the city redeveloped some units into mixed-income housing.

NYCHA is trying to prevent similar patterns in New York. “There are certainly other cities where demolishing public housing was seen as the best option for that city,” Sinderbrand says. “That is not how we were operating here.”

But Sinderbrand also acknowledges that across the public housing system, the needs for repair outstrip NYCHA’s funds. Without further remediation, widespread mold may continue to threaten the community’s resiliency after the storm repairs are completed.

“Not putting funding into affordable housing” and failing to prioritize resilient infrastructure and updating floods maps “aren’t the fault of a hurricane,” Novak says. “Those are things that we have control over that we are choosing not to do. ”

Back in the Red Hook Houses, as the half-billion-dollar resiliency project to protect the neighborhood continues, Cabrera is still awaiting repairs for her bathroom. Sitting in her apartment with mold creeping down her shower wall in the next room, she says: “We don’t want to live like this.”