Dateline   |  January 06, 2014

'Breathless' part 2

Javier Sepuvelda, Melissa's father, learns that his own home is filled with severe asthma triggers that are exacerbating his daughter's disease. Rossana de la Cuadra, Amanda's mother, discovers the same thing. Both blame their landlord, the New York City Housing Authority or NYCHA, for the persistence of these triggers, accusing the agency of not making the necessary repairs.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> we fear. we fear what an attack will do, when it will occur, if we can get her her medicine.

>> reporter: javier was struggling with his daughter's asthma , a complicated disease he didn't fully understand.

>> the doctor said asthma , and even with that said, i was still ignorant.

>> reporter: ignorant, especially of what many asthma experts have known for quite some time. it's all about where you live. i'm standing along an invisible but important geographical dividing line in manhattan. right there is the upper east side , one of the most affluent neighborhoods in new york city . right over here is east harlem , one of the poorest. the two communities couldn't be any closer together, yet that well-to-do part of town has a much, much lower asthma rate.

>> so amongst children going to elementary school , it's about 7% on the upper east side . and about 19% in east harlem .

>> reporter: this professor is a renowned asthma researcher at columbia. so three times higher chance behind you, going in that direction, of a child having asthma than over here?

>> kids growing up city blocks apart from each other.

>> reporter: and the problem isn't just in new york.

>> it is seen in other cities. in chicago, it's seen, in philadelphia. all of the major cities have these differences. i can't breathe i can't breathe i can't breathe i can't breathe

>> reporter: why the drastic difference in asthma rates? some of it has to do with the combination of crime-related stress, obesity and the close proximity to pollutants from truck traffic and industrial areas. all conditions much more prevalent in low-income neighborhoods. but one of the main differences is not what goes on outside but inside the home.

>> check all that apply. we have leaks.

>> yes.

>> extreme dampness or moisture.

>> yes.

>> reporter: to see if anything in his home was aggravating his daughter's asthma , javier enlisted the help of lsa family health service , a nonprofit organization in east harlem that helps families deal with the disease. lopez is the director of lsa's environmental health and family asthma program. and right away he identified a major asthma trigger in javier 's kitchen.

>> roaches. i hate to even admit that on tv, but, you know, again, it's a fact of life . we had a roach problem.

>> reporter: that's right. this unsightly creature is considered one of the main triggers for children's asthma .

>> one right here, look.

>> wow, there it goes.

>> reporter: roaches, of course, are a fact of urban life. but in low-income communities, they are a virtual epidemic. and that doesn't mean it's the fault of a tenant. in fact, javier 's kitchen was exceptionally clean with roach traps everywhere. you would describe yourself as fastidio fastidious.

>> yes.

>> reporter: it wasn't what was happening in your kitchen. it was what was happening in the building.

>> exactly. exactly.

>> reporter: but lopez and his team discovered that roaches were not the most significant asthma trigger in javier 's apartment.

>> wow. this i haven't seen.

>> reporter: it was mold which covered ceiling and walls of javier 's bathroom. lopez knew this was not just surface mildew created by humidity and poor ventilation. mold that you could simply wipe away with a bit of clorox.

>> this is a severe problem. the fact that this visible mold here is so dark. it's already in the black stages.

>> i see this over and over . you know, i ask myself who is going to fix this?

>> reporter: for people renting apartments in well-to-do communities, the answer is simple. they're landlords. but in low-income neighborhoods, lopez says, landlords often allow buildings to deteriorate which makes it easier for asthma triggers like roaches or mold to persist no matter how hard the tenants try to fight them.

>> you look at east harlem and the upper east side . i think we're basically breathing the same outdoor air. i think one of the big differences is the housing conditions, is the structural problems in many of these buildings. and the fact that landlords are slow to repair because nobody's forcing them to do this work.

>> reporter: javier says he started calling his landlord about his mold-infested bathroom almost a year before melissa's asthma attack . but he says any repairs were just superficial. the mold kept coming back.

>> i just said, they're obviously not doing the right thing here. and i got upset, and i said, to hell with this. i'm not going to pay them. and they were, like, you've got to pay your rent or else you're going to be evicted. i said, let's go to court.

>> reporter: the ebs tensive mold presence clearly violated the new york city housing code which required landlords to abate such a problem within 30 days or face significant fines. but something about javier 's struggle really got my attention. when i first heard about his problems, i assumed his nemesis was some private slum lord . i was surprised to learn his landlord was actually the city of new york . more specifically, its housing authority . it's the largest public housing agency in north america with over 400,000 tenants. and guess who else was a tenant. guess who else had a bathroom full of black mold . yes. roseanna and her asthmatic daughter, amanda.

>> there was a leak. because that's how the mold started.

>> reporter: amanda was exposed to that mold for a long time.

>> for a long time.

>> reporter: roseanna says she immediately notified nycha after her daughter was diagnosed with asthma in march 2012 . nycha sent several crews to inspect the bathroom but did not approve of bathroom repair until eight months later. and when roseanna called nycha in the fall of 2012 to get an actual repair date --

>> he said, well, the only available date that we have is march 2014 . and here sitting and listening on the phone, and i'm, like, 2014 ? are you kidding me?

>> reporter: that was almost a year and a half away.

>> at this point, i was saying to myself, my child is sick. she could die. and no one is doing anything to help me.

>> reporter: a lot of folks will look at this and think, well, why not just leave the apartment?

>> yeah. but then again, where do we go? right now we cannot afford another place to move into.

>> reporter: new york city public housing is not free. most tenants are required to pay 30% of their income as rent. in fact, more than one-third of the housing authority 's total operating budget comes from rental payments. you work full time .

>> yes.

>> reporter: your husband works full time .

>> he works full time also.

>> reporter: you're not asking for handouts here.

>> no, i'm not. all i wanted was, you know, for nycha to help me when i needed it.

>> reporter: but you had to make a lot of noise.

>> i had to go public.

>> reporter: my name is roseanna .

>> reporter: so roseanna went public and "dateline" went undercover to see if anyone would be listening.

>> you no he what? you need to pray to somebody.