Landlord Lead Family to Ruin

Landlord Lead Family to Ruin
Daily News, April 3, 1997
by Juan Gonzalez

Last October, Vernice Hill discovered that her 5-year-old son, Jmapie, had lead poisoning. Every room in her Bronx apartment the walls, the doors, the window sills was completely contaminated with peeling lead-based paint.

Lead poisoning is a lot different from food poisoning or sun poisoning. Lead poisoning is dangerous and can cause learning disabilities, severe brain damage, and in some cases, death.

Every year, 2,000 New York City children are discovered with dangerous levels of lead in their bodies. Health officials estimate that an equal number have lead poisoning but have not been screened for it. The city uses a threshold that is half as stringent as the standard used by federal authorities, so the number of new victims could be more than 8,000 a year.

With more old buildings with lead paint than any place in the country, New York has had a program for decades to remove the danger. But, as with most aspects of the government that have to do with the poor, enforcement is a joke.

In this case, however, the enforcement efforts did work.

When Jmapie's condition was discovered, the city Health Department determined that the situation in the 4 1/2-room, $930-a-month apartment at 1801 Weeks Ave. constituted a "danger to the life and health of the children" according to the Oct. 21 Health Department order to landlord Lez Gazivoda.

The landlord was ordered to remove the lead paint, cover the walls with plasterboard and decontaminate the whole apartment. But when workers began the encapsulation on March 10, they inadvertently spread lead dust throughout the apartment, according to Megan Charlop, director of Montefiore Medical Center's Lead Poisoning Prevention Project.

As a result, she said, Hill's 1-year-old son, Darnell, was exposed to high lead levels. Charlop decided to relocate Hill and her children to a temporary shelter for lead poison victims.

"Families can stay in our units for several weeks while landlords do the abatement work," Charlop said.

Hill and her family moved into the shelter on March 17. A week later, one of Charlop's caseworkers accompanied Hill to the apartment to check on the workers' progress. The workers were gone and so was everything she owned.

The locks had been changed. So Hill and the social worker called police and a cop climbed the building's fire escape and got into the apartment from a window.

The apartment was empty.

"Everything was gone," she said. "All the photos when my kids were babies . . . all our clothes, the kids' toys, even my pots and pans."

Hill found a few items of clothing and some of the children's toys in an alley behind the building. But as for her furniture and her other possessions, the building superintendent said he knew nothing.

"I just came back to the shelter and wept," she said.

"The super kept telling me, 'You don't live here no more. The landlord rented it to someone else.' " said Weeks, who knew nothing about any eviction.

Her rent, which is paid directly to the landlord under the federal Section 8 housing program, is always on time. And anyone familiar with the rundown area around Weeks Ave. and 174th St. knows the landlord was making a killing off the government at $930 a month.

"It's trauma enough that one of this woman's children got lead poisoning in that apartment," Charlop said. "Or that a second child got it because of careless work. Or that she had to move out temporarily. But I've never heard of anything like this. It's illegal, immoral and outrageous."

Two days after the "eviction," Hill went to court seeking an order to show cause. Before the case was even heard by a judge, a representative for the landlord agreed to give Hill a new key to her apartment. But nothing was said about her belongings.

Landlord Gazivoda has discontinued the lead paint removal. He has not returned repeated telephone calls. City officials are still trying to figure out what to do.

Decades after the city promised to remove dangerous lead from its housing stock, it is amazing that a landlord can so openly flaunt the law and treat their tenants, helpless victims of lead poisoning, with such criminal contempt.

Original Story Date: 040397
Original Story Section: City Central