311 Complaints: Call center data offers false portrait of indoor environmental health hazards

BY and


Forty years after Jacklyne Michelle Holmes first moved into her apartment in the city-owned Polo Grounds Towers, she had to stop working. Black mold and cockroaches in her home caused severe asthmatic symptoms and nerve damage, she said.

“We used to have to sit on the toilet with an umbrella, because pieces of molded plaster would fall on our heads,” Holmes said of her apartment.

Holmes’ neighborhood in Washington Heights suffers from some of the worst indoor environmental health hazards in Manhattan, 2018 Department of Health community profiles show. But New York City 311 — a program that allows residents to report neighborhood problems – suggests otherwise. Residents in the Upper West Side’s Community Board 7 (CB 7) have filed more complaints since 2010 than any other neighborhood, 311 complaint records show, despite being both healthier and wealthier than average.

Indoor air quality complaints in the 311 system misrepresent residents’ housing concerns. The neighborhood with the highest 311 complaints about indoor environmental issues, the Upper West Side, does not suffer the most related health consequences.

Despite its frequent complaints, CB 7 has lower rates of indoor environmental health problems, such as asthma, when compared to the rest of Manhattan. Washington Heights, for example, has seen approximately twice as many childhood asthma emergency room visits as the Upper West Side, Department of Health data from 2016 shows.

The data is further skewed because New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) apartments file indoor environmental complaints to a NYCHA call center rather than 311. These grievances are invisible to 311 data. One in 15 New Yorkers live in city housing, according to a NYCHA fact sheet.

Ajiit Narayan, a data science analyst at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., said that 311 data cannot inform public policy decisions in urban areas unless its biases are taken into account.

Self-reporting systems, said Narayan, are rife with bias. Where some categories, like mold, are easily reportable, others, like “indoor air quality,” could mean different things to different people. Complaints could encompass anything from cigarette smoke to problems with major health consequences like asbestos or pests.

Certain communities are also more likely to report problems through the system, making the data a misrepresentation of which neighborhoods struggle the most with housing.

In a 2017 study by Constantine Kontokosta, assistant professor of urban economics at New York University, researchers measured how socioeconomic status in New York correlated with 311 calls. They found that neighborhoods, including the Upper West Side, that have a more wealthy, white, or English-speaking residents tend to over-report problems, while neighborhoods with more unemployment and non-English speakers, are likely to under-report.

NYCHA residents can only file complaint tickets through a representative at the call center, a system that often results in slow responses and ineffective repairs, according to a recent NYCHA federal monitor report. A representative for the federal monitor, Bart Schwartz, declined an interview request. NYCHA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

When poor housing conditions go unaddressed, they can cause or exacerbate health complications, experts say. The presence of cockroaches and mice can trigger asthma, said Matt Perzanowski, associate professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University.

Department of Health data show that both cockroaches and mice appear in Holmes’ neighborhood at higher rates than the Upper West Side. And poor ventilation — a problem common in low-income neighborhoods — can trap dangerous gases from cooking, cleaning and outdoor air pollutants, said Lubna Ahmed, director of environmental health for We Act for Environmental Justice, an advocacy group.

Improving access to 311, Holmes said, “would be nice.” But to her, the damage has already been done.

“I’m fighting for over 400,000 residents now and whoever’s to come,” said Holmes, who is a climate activist for We Act. “Having access to 311 now really would do nothing for me, because this has adversely affected my health and it’s not going to change.”