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After misleading feds on lead testing, NYCHA chief is on the hot seat at packed hearing

New York City Housing Authority's chair was grilled by City Council members Tuesday after news broke that her agency had falsely reported lead inspections and removal in public housing.

Shola Olatoye testified at an hours-long hearing that was extremely heated at times. Her agency's actions over the last few years could potentially have an impact on thousands of families across the city.

Councilman Ritchie Torres, the chair of the council's Public Housing Committee, lead the questioning. It was intense and relentless.

"So you went 15 to 16 months without telling the general public," Torres asked Olatoye, referring to her disclosures about the lack of lead inspection in NYCHA housing.

Her response referred to her signing a disclosure form with the federal housing agency about the lead inspections in public housing.

"It was possibly a year, on the HUD compliance piece, yes," Olatoye said.

From 2012 to 2016, NYCHA did not test 55,000 of its 178,000 public-housing units that it suspected could have lead.  That was due in part to a Bloomberg administration decision to focus instead on other maintenance issues in public housing after the federal government relaxed some rules for lead testing.

Olatoye was chair of NYCHA for half of that time period.  The state requires annual inspections and Olatoye claimed, in a City Council hearing in late March 2016, that her agency had been testing for lead when in fact, it had not.  By April 2016, she was aware that NYCHA had not been testing for lead, according to a housing agency spokesperson.

Despite that, in October 2016, she told the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development that testing had been done.

Those inaccuracies were only exposed when the city’s Department of Investigation revealed them in November of this year.

That history of misinformation is what compelled Torres to summon the housing chairwoman to the council chamber.

Asking by Torres if she regretted the delay in publication notification, Olatoye resonded: "Could we have done more sooner,” Olatoye said.  “Perhaps."

That was little consolation, however, for NYCHA residents like Sherron Paige.  Tears rolled down her cheeks during the hearing when Public Advocate Letitia James told the NYCHA chairwoman, “If these were children living somewhere else, the public outcry would be all consuming.”

“My 4 year-old son hits his head against the wall because he couldn't communicate," said Paige, who lives in Red Hook Houses East in Brooklyn.

She said that he suffers from brain damage due to his exposure to lead paint. Paige is part of a class-action lawsuit against NYCHA that claims lead poisoning has stunted brain growth among children in NYCHA housingm including Paige’s son, Kyan Dickerson.

The lawsuit was filed by Corey Stern, the same attorney representing families in Flint, Michigan affected by lead poisoning there.

“NYCHA lacks the foundational knowledge,” said Stern, to handle the issue of lead testing and remediation properly.

In the end, Torres, who’d organized the hearing, agreed.  “The testimony [showed] a lack of forthrightness, a lack of honesty.”

In response, Olatoye told PIX11 News after the hearing, “All I can do is the work that is in front of us.”

She also referred to Torres specifically.  “The chair of the committee has been a partner in” improving an underfunded and under-maintained public housing system, Olatoye said. “We will continue to work on those issues.”

Torres has called for an independent entity to oversee the work of NYCHA, while James has called for Olatoye’s resignation.  Mayor Bill de Blasio, however, continues to advocate for his public housing director.