Lead poisoning plan missing key elements

City Hall is finally piecing together a strategy to combat lead poisoning, but it lacks key components necessary for success.

In January, the City of Buffalo launched its long-awaited pilot program to combat lead poisoning.

The pilot program is small — much smaller than the problem in Buffalo, which has one of the highest rates of children afflicted with lead poisoning in the nation. 

And, as it stands now, the program lacks funding mechanisms to make it bigger. 

Furthermore, a key element is still missing: a new local law that will allow city inspectors access to the interiors of the city’s abundant rental singles and doubles in poor neighborhoods. Those dwellings comprise 80 percent of the city’s highest-risk properties.

Still, the pilot program represents a cautious step forward in a city that has lacked a formal program to address lead poisoning for 20 years. 

In that time, thousands of the city’s infants and children have tested positive for lead poisoning — an affliction that can have devastating, long-term effects and is irreversible.

“It affects children from birth to age six, because that’s when their brains are developing,” said Cara Matteliano of the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo. “It can cause problems with education achievement, it can cause problems with behavior. It can cause health problems.”

Matteliano is the Community Foundation’s point person on lead poisoning. Two years ago, the foundation — in collaboration with other community groups and city and county governments — issued a report on lead poisoning in Western New York, with a focus on Buffalo. 

That report included a plan with 19 recommended actions to be taken by New York State, Erie County and the City of Buffalo.

Erie County adopted its three recommendations quickly and has since committed new resources to its existing lead poisoning prevention programs.

The foundation made 11 recommendations to the city. The new pilot program, just two months old, represents the city government’s first substantial step toward doing its part. 

Louis Petrucci, the city’s deputy commissioner for the Department of Permits and Inspection, told Investigative Post that his team understands the frustration caused by the city’s two-year delay.

“All of us wish that things moved faster, but there were a lot of different balls that were in play in order to bring us to this point,” Petrucci said.

The pilot program

According to Petrucci, those complications begin with the sheer numbers of properties and landlords involved.

 In its first year, the pilot program’s three employees aim to inspect 1,500 properties the city and county have determined to pose especially high risks to children — rental singles and doubles in poor neighborhoods. 

In January, those employees performed interior inspections on 68 properties, discovering lead paint violations in seven of them. That’s on pace to meet the program’s goal. 

However, according to the Community Foundation’s research, there are 36,000 of those properties in the city, owned by 14,000 different landlords. 

At 1,500 properties per year, it would take the new program 24 years to address just those highest-risk properties.

The cost of addressing the problems in just those 36,000 highest-risk properties — inspecting them, and in many cases providing cash-strapped landlords and tenants financial assistance for lead remediation — could run into the hundreds of million of dollars.

Add in properties that pose lower but still significant risks for lead exposure, and all those numbers more than double.

Two of the three new employees are city inspectors. The third is a community outreach specialist. The outreach campaign will ramp up in April, when home renovation season begins. The goal of the campaign is to make tenants and landlords aware of the hazards of lead exposure, teach them how to spot lead hazards in old houses — like flaking paint and dust — and inform them who to call to properly remediate their properties.

“Education needs to be a key component to this program,” Petrucci said, “because there’s no way we have enough money to simply write a check and take care of all the problems.”

Finding the money

Money is an issue. Buffalo doesn’t have any. The city has spent down its reserves by $100 million in the last decade, leaving nothing in the bank with which to underwrite new programs.  

However, other cities have found resources to combat lead, primarily grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Andrew McLellan is president of Environmental Education Associates Inc. For decades, the company has been training and certifying municipal inspectors and private contractors across the state how to identify and deal safely with lead contamination.

It’s great to see the progress, but we’re still not as far along as the other cities in the state,”  McLellan told Investigative Post.

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He offered the example of Rochester, which he called “a shining star” among cities dealing with chronic lead contamination and exposure issues.

For the past 15 years, Rochester has had what Buffalo has lacked: a formal program to combat lead poisoning, buttressed by a strong local law. 

It also has enjoyed abundant federal funding. That’s because both the City of Rochester and Monroe County apply for, receive and administer multimillion lead hazard control grants from HUD.

Here, only Erie County operates a HUD lead hazard control grant. The City of Buffalo hasn’t applied for that money since the mid-1990s.

As a result, Rochester and Monroe County have brought roughly twice as much money as Buffalo to bear against the problem in the past two decades. 

The contrast in results is marked. 

“They’ve seen a 90 percent decline in elevated blood levels in the City of Rochester over the past 15 years,” McLellan said.

Academic achievement has risen as well, and experts attribute some of that rise to the success of Rochester’s long-running efforts to protect children from exposure to flaking lead paint and dust, which are the prime causes of lead poisoning in cities with aging housing stock.

HUD has increased its funding for lead hazard control programs in recent years, largely because the results are so positive. In 1992, the federal government calculated a 10-to-1 cost-benefit ratio for spending money on lead hazard control. Today, the feds peg that ratio at 18-to-1.

HUD gave out $22 million in lead hazard control grants last year in Western New York. Niagara County received its first ever HUD lead hazard control grant — $2.75 million — in last year’s round of funding. Erie County’s funding was nearly doubled to $5.6 million. 

Nor are Rochester and Monroe County the only place where city and county governments both receive HUD grants. Cleveland and Cuyahoga County just received a combined $17.3 million in HUD lead hazard control grants.

Why has the City of Buffalo failed to seek HUD funds while its peer cities have benefited from federal largesse?

McLellan has a theory.

Past failures

“As someone who’s looked at it for over 30 years, I’d say we’re further behind than we were when Gene Fahey was a councilman,” McLellan said.

That was the mid 1990s, when Fahey — now a New York State Court of Appeals judge — convened the city’s first lead task force. On the strength of the task force’s work, the city obtained a $4 million HUD grant to fight lead. 

The program was a disaster. The city didn’t remediate nearly as many units as it promised HUD it would, and the work was often shoddy. One of the contractors trained and employed by the program turned out to be owned by a family of slumlords whose Buffalo properties were in violation of numerous housing codes. 

“They were actually, to my knowledge, one of the few programs that had to pay those funds back to HUD,” McLellan said.

That was 20 years ago. Since then, McLellan said, the city has made no effort to create a new program that would qualify for HUD funding. In fact, he said, the city has lacked the will or leadership to crack down on lead issues at all until now.

“I can only theorize that there was some reluctance to impose these requirements on small property owners,” McLellan said. “What they felt would be a burden. But what would have been the benefit of 15 years or 20 years of lead-safer housing?”

Asked if the city might seek HUD funding again in the future, Petrucci, the deputy commissioner of permits and inspections, said, “Yeah, that is under consideration.”

Petrucci agreed with McLellan that for many years the city worried that cracking down on lead paint issues and other code violations would drive landlords out of the city. They’d abandon their properties, let them rot, rather than invest in making them safe for tenants.

“I don’t get that same feeling anymore,” Petrucci said, citing the increase in the number of building and renovation permits his department issues each year.

Strengthening local law

Among the Community Foundation’s recommendations in its 2018 report was empowering Petrucci’s inspectors with a stronger law addressing lead hazards.

Under current law, city inspectors must seek permission — from a tenant or a landlord — to enter and inspect the interior of a dwelling, where children face the highest risk of lead exposure. Permission is easily and often refused.

The foundation’s action plan called on the city to adopt a new law that would allow city inspectors to compel entry and inspection.

The Brown administration has said again and again that it is working on that new law. It’s been saying that for two years.

Again, McLellan doesn’t understand the delay. Rochester and Syracuse have lead ordinances that allow inspectors to enter properties. HUD, he says, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to develop model statutes and lead hazard control programs. 

“It doesn’t matter the size of your city, what your circumstances are,” McLellan said. “That product is ready on the shelf in Washington. You just have to go pick it up.”

Matteliano, of the Community Foundation, is understanding of the city’s cautious approach. She told Investigative Post that the city, with resources the Community Foundation has helped to generate, has been consulting national experts, as well as local community groups, as it drafts a new ordinance.

“One of the things that we saw, unfortunately, pretty frequently, is cities that put these bright, shiny enforcement mechanisms in place that never got implemented,” Matteliano said. 

“So we wanted to make sure that whatever was put in place was tailored to Buffalo’s specific housing stock…and is implementable from the absolute beginning so we don’t have to go back and try to fix something like some of the other cities have had to do.”

The city has also been working with a focus group of about 40 small landlords to help determine a plan that will engage them in solving the problem, rather than scare them off. Most of the landlords are short on resources, and lead remediation can average $10,000 per dwelling. They predominantly live in the same sort of problem housing stock, in the same neighborhoods the city’s new program is targeting. 

Many of them are new Americans — Bengalis, Somalis, Bangladeshis — who need to be educated in their own languages about the risk lead poisoning presents and about lead-safe work practices.

A new ordinance has to combine incentives to come into compliance, alongside punishments for  intractable landlords.

All of that has taken time, Matteliano said. She agreed the delay is frustrating — as is the city’s previous record of inaction — but added, “I would say it’s never too late to be working on this.”

Nowakowski’s deadline

Fillmore District Councilmember Mitch Nowakowski shares Mattelliano’s appreciation of the complexities of the problem. 

He does not share her patience for a new ordinance.

“This is a priority. It’s one of my top priorities here in 2020,” Nowakowski said during a recent walk through the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood. That neighborhood has one of the highest rates of lead poisoning in the city, according to Erie County health data. 

Nowakowski told Investigative Post he’d give the Brown administration until spring to submit a new ordinance to the Common Council for approval. 

“If it comes to that, I’m willing to write my own ordinance,” he said. “Because we’re really talking about the health and safety of the residents of the Fillmore District.”

Nowakowski also told Investigative Post that, when the city formulates next year’s budget in May, he’ll push the Brown administration to commit funding to a revolving loan fund that will help landlords pay for lead remediation work.

The idea is based on a program in Syracuse, which provides low- or no-interest loans, and sometimes grants, to qualifying landlords to bring their properties into code compliance. 

Syracuse’s program started out targeting lead contamination issues specifically. It has been so successful that it now helps property owners address other code violations, as well.

Petrucci told Investigative Post the target is to raise $2.5 million. Some of that money will come from banks, he said, and some from governments.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz pledged $400,000 in seed money in the county’s current budget. The Brown administration has not yet committed funding. 

For Nowakowski, doing so is an imperative. 

“I believe it’s our responsibility to make lead a priority and start committing funds to it,” he said.