Tuesday, January 06, 2004 
Lead Dust Issue Hits Home for Activist

Mary Brosnahan Sullivan, the director of the Coalition for the Homeless, was homeless for six months last year as a result of toxic mold and hazardous lead dust in her East 17th Street apartment. For this veteran activist, the personal suddenly became the political.

And now her landlord – Noah Osnos – is trying to evict her in housing court. Ms. Brosnahan and her husband are countersuing because the landlord signed a declaration that their apartment was “lead-free,” as part of a proffered lease renewal.

But when Olmstead Environmental Services applied a scientific test to the Brosnahan-Sullivan apartment, they discovered lead dust, “which is 35 times the acceptable limit.”

During the six months Ms. Brosnahan, her husband, and her now 14-month-old son, Quinn, had no place to live, they were not on the street like the casualties the coalition serves. But they had to live a destabilizing, nomadic existence, moving from hotels, to friends, to relatives – while Ms. Brosnahan regularly appeared on television as an advocate for the homeless, and for more affordable housing to be built.

The Brosnahan’s one-bedroom apartment became contaminated with lead dust as a result of renovations on the lower floors = including the demolition of crumbling plaster walls and ceilings – being performed by the landlord. Court papers say the landlord did not have permits for the work.

Pediatricians and health experts urged Ms. Brosnahan to vacate her apartment immediately because her son was then starting to crawl, and was at great risk for lead poisoning. The landlord has also failed to install window guards as twice promised. It was this traumatic experience that propelled Mr. Brosnahan to speak at a press conference last month at City Hall to denounce Mayor Bloomberg for vetoing the City Council’s lead poisoning bill designed to force landlords, and the city, to remove lead dust from apartment’s like the one Ms. Brosnahan had to flee for safety.

“I happened to see the mayor on television,” Ms. Brosnahan told The New York Sun, “He was saying he had vetoed the lead-paint bill because it would create homelessness. His reasoning just stunned me. I had just been homeless because of lead dust. I have worked to help the homeless for 14 years. And now I was hearing the mayor give such an untrue rationale for his veto. My head started to explode I was so angry. Lead poisoning causes homelessness, no lead-paint abatement.”

Ms. Brosnahan stopped paying her rent after she received the allegedly misleading assurance her home was lead-free. As a result she received an eviction notice from her landlord on December 8, 2003, for failure to pay $9,620 in back rent since May of 2003. The eviction notice came from the landlord’s company, 1804 Washington Avenue Corp. Mr. Osnos, who also owns other buildings on the same Union Square block, did not return phone calls asking for his side of the story.

Sam Himmelstein, the lawyer for Ms. Brosnahan, said, “the EPA’s guidelines say that the false representation of no lead in an apartment entitles the tenant to triple damages because they were displaced, and there are children under 6 years old in the apartment…

“We are arguing that Mary and her family were constructively evicted for six months because of lead dust that was 35 times more hazardous than the legal limit.”

The lead-paint law Mr. Bloomberg vetoed doesn’t exactly cover this fact pattern. But there ought to be a new law that protects tenants like Mary Brosnahan from these circumstances of lead dust, false declarations by landlords, and this sort of eviction-by-harassment, so the property can gentrify.

The pending bill holds landlords liable for negligence if a child is poisoned.

The support of Council Speaker Gifford Miller was essential to the council’s passage of the anti-lead bill, 44-to-5 last month.

Asked about the mayor’s veto, Mr. Miller said: “I had a negotiation with the mayor. He asked for 27 changes in the bill’s language. We gave him 24 of the 27 points he wanted. Frankly, I was surprised he vetoed the bill. He wanted liability immunity for landlords and for the city.

“Why should we make it that the only time the city is not liable for its negligence is when children are poisoned? No city in the country does this.

“The provision in the bill that was the sticking point is the presumption of lead paint in buildings built before 1960. There is no presumption of some generalized landlord guilt. A child has to be poisoned before the bill becomes relevant. Lead was from banned from paint in New York City in 1960. So the presumption of lead, in pre-1960s building is logical. We presume lead is toxic, not anything about all landlords.”

On January 21, Speaker Miller is confident the council will override mayor Bloomberg’s veto, with at least 10 votes to spare.

Mary Brosnahan and Noah Osnos will be back in housing court a week later.

Sam Himmelstein says, “Low-level feelers and settlement conversations are now going on. I don’t know of they will go anywhere.”

Meanwhile, the personal and the political have converged in Mary Brosnahan’s busy life. She plans to be a witness for the lead-paint override vote.

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