‘They have a right to damages’: Jacob Riis Houses residents sue NYC over arsenic water scare

Attorneys on behalf of residents at Jacob Riis Houses announced Monday that they have filed a lawsuit against the city due to ongoing water concerns.

Stephanie and her mother Emperatriz Ramirez waited outside 465 East 10th St., joining dozens of tenants who arrived to show their support for the lawsuit. The elder Rodriguez sat on a bench hand clasped to her face with Stephanie desperately attempting to comfort her.

“My mother’s not feeling well, this is making her anxious,” Stephanie told amNewYork Metro.

Jacob Riis Houses residents sue city over arsenic scare
Emperatriz Ramirez still has anxiety over drinking water in her apartment at the Jacob Riis Houses. Photo by Dean Moses

Turmoil over drinking water at the public housing project reached a new level on Sept. 12 when attorney Sanford Rubenstein, representing some 35 Riis Houses tenants, joined civil rights activist Rev. Kevin McCall to announce the first lawsuit in the episode.

Their claim comes on behalf of resident Rebecca Perkins who believes the exact dangers of the water remain foggy at best, and the stress and worry of growing ill from potential chemicals in the water was enough grounds to file the lawsuit.

Attorney Sanford Rubenstein and Civil Rights activist Rev. Kevin McCall. Photo by Dean Moses

“They have a right to damages for the fear of getting sick. And certainly when you put out a report that there’s arsenic in the water, and maybe Legionnaires disease in the water, it’s reasonable for you to fear getting sick,” Rubenstein said.

Fears about Legionella bacteria in the water, which causes Legionnaires disease, were also unfounded.

Stephanie Ramirez tries to comfort her mother. Photo by Dean Moses

Following a week of bewilderment and panic, Mayor Eric Adams announced that the complex’s water was safe to drink on Sept. 10 and even knocked back a large glass of the liquid himself to prove its safety.

This came after Adams said the city performed a slew of tests to ensure there are no longer health concerns. However, Perkins charges that she isn’t buying it. 

“You can verbalize, or you can actualize. I went to Riis and I drank the water. So, it is one thing for me to say the water is fine when someone else is drinking it. I went to Riis, turned on the faucet, filled up the glass, and drank the entire glass. The water is fine, the tests are clear. And we know there are years of distrust in NYCHA, and rightfully so. We have to rebuild that trust, and you rebuild that trust by being on the ground and being very clear,” Adams said.

Adams hoped to quell the long history of mistrust by ensuring that his administration went above and beyond in testing, and retesting, the water until they felt confident it was safe.

“We want to make sure the quality of the water. The water is fine. That is why we told NYCHA residents, it is okay to drink and bathe in the water. DEP was on board, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene was on board, all of our agencies were on board, the water’s fine,” Adams said. 

Jaded by the continued pitfalls of NYCHA, Perkins does not have confidence in the latest water results. 

Locals listened to attorney Sanford Rubenstein and Civil Rights activist Rev. Kevin McCall discuss the lawsuit against the city. Photo by Dean Moses

“I don’t trust what the mayor has said that the water is safe to drink when he put out two different reports that the water was once contaminated with arsenic and now Legionella, and then you say the water is fine. I saw that he did put a video out of him drinking one glass of water, but one glass of water is not going to prove anything,” Perkins said.

Disgruntled residents condemned the mayor pledging to join the lawsuit with one woman scoffing that she felt foolish for voting for Adams. 

Adams, however, promises that a thorough investigation will be conducted to understand what went wrong and how to ensure that things are done better. He added that the city’s first response was to first address the crisis at hand, and now his administration will hold a top to bottom review on the situation. 

Civil Rights activist Rev. Kevin McCall comforts resident, Rebecca Perkins. Photo by Dean Moses