To breathe free

By Michelle Chen Jun 04, 2009

The connection between housing and child development has attracted considerable public fascination—most recently with the dissection of how young Sonia Sotomayor, growing up in a Bronx housing project, “overcame the odds.” One New York advocacy group is putting a spotlight on kids today who struggle to overcome the odds just to breathe. In a report on housing conditions and asthma, Make the Road New York says families of color are made more vulnerable to asthma by suffocatingly substandard housing conditions—apartments marred with crumbling walls, roaches, and moldy air. City health authorities have reported epidemic asthma rates in adults and children, with clear links to race. As the leading cause of school absence and hospitalization for children 14 years and younger, the illness aggravates a multitude of other economic and educational hardships in Black and Latino neighborhoods. The report reflects the findings of an in-depth 2008 study linking asthma not only to race and ethnicity, but also to poor housing conditions and living environments. The community’s “cohesion” makes a difference as well: fears about being out on the street may force parents to keep their children in the house, exposing them to internal threats instead. Make the Road outlined the story of Brooklyn mother Luisa Mejia to illustrate how even direct evidence of health harms fails to spur action from a landlord:

Her son, her daughter, her granddaughter, and Ms. Mejia all have severe asthma. Ms. Mejia was recently hospitalized for several days in Woodhull Hospital for an asthma attack. The deplorable housing conditions in her building exacerbate her and her families’ asthma. There is a lot of mold in her bathroom. The landlord refuses to fix the leak that causes the mold. Instead, he sends workers to merely paints over the mold. After a few weeks the mold comes back again. There is also a major roach and mice infestation in the building. During the past two years, Ms. Mejia has sued her landlord several times in Housing Court in order to try to get repairs made in her apartment. However, her landlord still has not corrected the mold and vermin violations that trigger her families’ asthma.

To address the asthma epidemic, the city has established public health programs and protocols for remediating indoor mold and pests. But Make the Road says current environmental protections are too weak to protect tenants, and urges new legislation to compel landlords to take special precautions for residents with asthma. Despite inspiring tales of New Yorkers beating the odds, the city has a long way to go meet the most elemental needs of its disadvantaged children—often as basic as taking a deep breath. Image: Julien Jourdes / New York Times