Legislation to end lead poisoning misses mark, critics say

In 2004 the City Council passed a series of bills designed to eliminate lead poisoning in children by 2010. Rates have fallen by nearly 90% since then, but progress has slowed. Last year 4,261 children tested positive for elevated levels of lead in their blood, an exposure that poses risks for their cognitive and physical development.

Yet experts say this is entirely preventable, and the council is trying again. It has scheduled a hearing for Thursday on a suite of 23 bills that aim to eradicate the problem.

But much of the legislation appears based on anecdotal evidence and to miss what advocates say is the core of the issue: Landlords have not been inspecting their apartments and ridding them lead paint hazards when required to, and the city has let them off the hook.

“Before the council runs off in 45 directions, it first needs to get a grasp on what the problem is,” said Matthew Chachère, an expert on lead laws and an attorney with the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corp., a nonprofit that runs programs to help people become self-sufficient.

For example, the 2004 law requires landlords to fix lead paint hazards as they crop up and to inspect annually those apartments assumed to have lead paint if a child lives there. When such an apartment becomes vacant, landlords also must ensure that surfaces repeatedly rubbed by doors or windows are protected from chipping or creating dust. Over time, these measures were supposed to reduce the amount of lead paint to which children could potentially be exposed.

While there’s no good data on whether landlords are living up to the law, advocacy groups say lead-poisoning rates suggest they aren’t and that enforcement is abysmal: A report released Tuesday showed that the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development has never sanctioned an owner for failing to conduct an annual lead inspection.

Map showing the location of every building that incurred a lead violation within the last five years. Credit: Rentlogic

Another section of those laws requires landlords to use practices designed to contain dust when renovating buildings assumed to contain lead paint. But tenant advocacy group the Cooper Square Committee said landlords have not been adhering to protocol. It provided Crain’s with inspection reports from 2013 to 2017 on eight Lower East Side and East Village buildings. In each case, inspectors from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene found high lead levels on surfaces in common areas. After landlord Samy Mafar purchased 102 Norfolk St. and began construction, for example, tests showed residents were exposed to more than 400 times the legal limit of lead.

“We see gut renovations happen, and owners are not doing everything they are supposed to,” said Brandon Kielbasa, director of organizing and policy for the group.

The city countered it is more efficient to educate parents to call 311 and trigger an inspection than to find out which landlords aren’t inspecting apartments themselves. Since 2004, the development agency has issued 300,000 lead-paint violations and has spent $40 million abating lead in private apartments after receiving complaints.

“The mayor has made Vision Zero the goal, and we’re developing new tools to reach it,” a spokesman said in a statement. “We look forward to working with the council on new approaches to reduce lead exposure to zero.”

A handful of the new bills attempt to address the issues identified by advocates and likely will spur debate between lawmakers and landlords groups, who argue that contamination rates have gone down precisely because owners have been following the current laws. Under the proposals, owners would be required to hire an independent inspector every five years to check for lead and eventually prove to the city that all lead paint in a unit assumed to have it has been remediated. Another bill would alert the Department of Buildings when a child is found to have elevated lead levels so the agency could oversee more closely any construction at the property. Advocates say coordination between the city’s health and buildings departments has been minimal.

With lead issues coming to the fore, council members want to be seen as taking action, but they have shown they are prone to pushing bills that sound good but might not be the best solution.

Some measures could even divert resources away from where they are most needed. For example, while it is widely known that old paint is the most common pathway for lead poisoning in children, about half of the bills in the council package focus on water and soil. While tests have shown lead does appear in both, there is not a great body of evidence showing water and soil to be significant sources of poisoning.

Chachère, the lead-laws expert, adds that none of the bills would require the city to inspect or audit landlords proactively.

“First, you need to do oversight and figure out why are kids getting poisoned,” he said. “And you need to make sure that property owners are doing what they are supposed to be doing. I don’t see any of these bills effectively addressing that.”

The Rent Stabilization Association, which represents owners of rent-regulated apartments, will testify on Thursday that the goal should be to make apartments safe, not to remove lead that presents no significant risk. The group said that the current laws are sufficient to eliminating the problem, and that requiring owners to completely remove lead paint would be too costly and force them to raise rents. In addition, stricter standards would require more construction that could actually increase the likelihood of contamination.