State and local officials filed a lawsuit today against Syracuse landlord William D’Angelo and his company, Marpat LLC, for repeatedly violating lead safety laws at 22 different rental properties, leading to at least 15 children suffering from lead poisoning.
The coalition of elected officials, including New York Attorney General Letitia James, Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon and Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh, alleges D’Angelo’s failure to reign in the threat of lead poisoning at his properties resulted in 336 violations of lead safety laws in the last seven years.
Officials are seeking thousands in fines and restitution to affected families from D’Angelo. He would also have to relinquish profits obtained from rent payments and be required to address code violations, submitting his properties to constant inspections for lead hazards if the suit is successful. D’Angelo would have to pay $5,000 for each false or misleading lead disclosure he provided – or non-existent lead disclosure he failed to provide – to tenants over the years.
James’ lawsuit also calls for an order to prevent D’Angelo from selling properties. He has sold three properties in the last few months and is in contract to sell another five, James said at a Thursday press conference. Three of those properties have outstanding lead violations, and children living in two of them have been diagnosed with lead poisoning, James said.
“Tenants were exposed to lead dust and lead paint chips in their living spaces, putting them at great danger,” she said. “Mr. D’Angelo never warned tenants about the hazards associated with (remediation) work. He never even provided accurate lead disclosures to tenants when they signed leases.”
County property tax records show D’Angelo has amassed 51 properties in Onondaga County in the last 30 years — 48 of them in the city of Syracuse. That amounts to 116 individual rental units, the bulk of which are located in the city’s Westside. An analysis conducted by James’ office indicates D’Angelo’s rental properties were all built prior to 1940, decades before the state and federal governments banned the use of lead paint in the ’70s.
City code enforcement records show D’Angelo’s properties have five open violations, citing deteriorated paint on the interior and exterior of the property, as well as lead dust hazards.
James alleges the landlord has also failed to enforce lead-safe work practices and has often employed untrained and uncertified workers to perform renovations. This, the attorney general claims, has resulted in the spread of lead dust and chipping paint all over residents’ living areas. Central Current has recently reported on the lack of enforcement of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lead-safe repair work guidelines at the state and city levels.
The spread of lead contamination has contributed to a major public crisis in the city. In Syracuse, about one in 10 children tested for lead in 2022 showed elevated levels of the toxic element in their blood.
These figures are alarming, public health experts say, as lead poisoning has detrimental, long-lasting effects on children, affecting their development. The World Health Organization deems lead a neurotoxin in children, noting that the chemical element attacks the brain and the central nervous system at high levels of exposure. This can lead to convulsions and even death, with other long-term effects such as intellectual disabilities and behavioral disorders.
The issue also disproportionately affects families of color, James said in a press release. Ten of the 15 children who James’ office claims were affected by lead at D’Angelo’s properties are children of color.
“It’s an injustice to those families,” Dr. Travis Hobart, the director of the Central/Eastern NY Lead Poisoning Resource Center, said at the press conference.
Hobart said that while his center oversees treatment of lead-poisoned children, medical treatments are not as effective as they need to be to deal with the crisis.
“Mostly what we’re doing is waiting for the body to remove lead on its own,” he said. “So our top priority is primary prevention, preventing lead in the homes from being a problem.”
Current resident worries about eviction, apartment’s conditions
Starr Heffentrager is staring down a potential termination of her tenancy at the apartment she rents from D’Angelo on Merriman Avenue. She received a notice in May saying her family needs to vacate the home by Aug. 1 and has looked for a new home for her family, to no avail. D’Angelo told her he is selling the house, Heffentrager said.
“It is so hard to find an affordable place,” she said.
But staying in her home would prove extremely dangerous to her daughter Ciarah, who has been diagnosed with asthma. Medical experts say Ciarah may be in danger of being hospitalized due to complications with her asthma.
Central Current reviewed correspondence from October 2022 and February this year between a pulmonologist and Heffentrager, where the doctor detailed the extent of Ciarah’s allergies to mold, cockroaches, a protein found in mice urine, and dust. The medical professional explained in a note that the poor living conditions in the apartment could lead to Ciarah’s asthma’s symptoms to be so severe that she would need to be hospitalized.
Ciarah’s condition, Heffentrager said, has only been exacerbated by the conditions at the property. The family has been living with a partially collapsed ceiling for the past five months due to water damage, which uncovered visible mold permeating the structure. Heffentrager said the upstairs level of the two-family house she partially rents on Merriman Avenue flooded and was neglected until her ceiling collapsed.
“I showed the doctor pictures of our living situation and I was given those notes to whomever would help us get out of there,” she said. She receives housing support through the County Department of Social Services. “My daughter sleeps at night and silt and dust fall on her head when the upstairs neighbors walk around the house.”
Heffentrager said she was told by a DSS caseworker that she may not be able to move given that the property has not been declared unfit for human habitation by city code enforcement. The property had initially been deemed unfit in February. The city ordered DSS to stop paying D’Angelo the rent subsidies Heffentrager receives until code violations were cleared.
The “stop rent” order was lifted in March, city service request records show. Heffentrager said contractors installed a dropped ceiling in her unit shortly after the codes inspection. There is another inspection scheduled for Aug. 1.
Despite the property showing as compliant with codes on the city’s records, Heffentrager said the ceiling is still leaking water and remains largely exposed.
The ceiling is one of many issues at her home, Heffentrager said, adding that electrical outlets are faulty, the fridge often leaks water, her cabinets are falling apart and the windows are partially shattered.
“The landlord did just enough of a patch job to pass the code inspections,” she said.
Heffentrager also said her home is likely infested with lead. Onondaga County Health Department specialists inspected the apartment, testing for the presence of lead dust and chipping paint, around three weeks ago, she said.
Results have not come back yet, Heffentrager said, but a recent test on Ciarah did not show elevated levels of lead in her blood.
The conditions at Heffentrager’s apartment are not isolated. City code enforcement records show significant signs of disrepair across a slew of D’Angelo’s properties.
There are 39 open code violations at properties owned by D’Angelo, including citations for sewage backup issues, overflowing trash, ill-fitting windows and doors, bug infestations and lacking proper electrical facilities and smoke detectors. The structures were also cited for not being in proper compliance with the city’s Certificate of Compliance and Rental Registry programs, which are meant to ensure properties are safe and up to standard, free of code violations.
D’Angelo did not immediately respond to a request for comment.