Progress, at last, addressing lead poisoning

After years of delays, City Hall has adopted a promising plan to inspect and remediate contaminated apartments. The plan has gaps, however, and challenges remain.

For years, City Hall dallied in the face of  a lead poisoning epidemic among children in Buffalo’s poorest neighborhoods. City officials have finally put in place a plan being praised as a “huge step forward.”

Most importantly, ordinance updates approved by the Common Council in November give inspectors, for the first time, the right to test the interiors of apartments for lead paint. It also prohibits landlords from renting contaminated units.

Another improvement: loan and grant programs are being established to help landlords pay for the cost of remediating contaminated units.

Shortcomings remain in the city’s approach, however.

Owner-occupied rental properties — for example, a double where the owner lives in one flat and rents the other — are exempt from inspection. 

The cost of removing lead is another challenge. The price tag for remediating contaminated properties dwarfs the amount of money presently available to pay for the work.

The scope of the problem is daunting, too. There are as many as 36,000 houses built before lead paint was outlawed in the 1970s. A pilot program targeted 1,500 of these at-risk properties for inspection last year. With the new ordinance, and federal funds to help pay for inspectors, the city has set a goal of inspecting 6,000 units a year.

Cara Matteliano has spearheaded the effort in her role as senior director of policy of the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo. She’s a key member of the Lead Safe Task Force, which also includes city and county officials, landlords and tenants. 

The task force recommended a comprehensive plan in 2018. Erie County quickly adopted the measures it was asked to enact, but the Brown administration took more limited steps. Until now.

“It has taken a while,” Matteliano told Investigative Post. “This was about getting it right.” 

What remains to be seen is whether the city officials will effectively implement the program, which requires substantial funds at a time of budget deficits. 

“You can put a law on the books, but if you don’t have the money to enforce that law, then that law could be meaningless,” said Grace Andriette, deputy director for Neighborhood Legal Services, which provides legal counsel to low-income residents.

“Historically, the city has failed to enforce its own lead laws, which has led to tragic results. Thousands of children have been permanently injured due to lead paint exposure in our community.” 

“I am hopeful that the new law, which includes a prohibition on evictions, will change that trajectory.”

City officials refused to discuss the new lead plan with Investigative Post.

New approach to an old problem

Lead is a toxin that, even in trace amounts, can damage brain development in children and subsequently cause learning, behavioral and circulatory problems. Buffalo has an especially old housing stock where lead paint is common. The result: a lot of children, especially in low-income neighborhoods, have tested positive for elevated levels of lead in their blood.

Investigative Post has written 23 stories about the problem since 2014. It initially found that three ZIP codes in the city had more children testing with elevated lead levels than anywhere in upstate. Nearly 500 children were diagnosed between 2009 and 2012.

That finding prompted one activist, David Hahn-Baker, to declare Buffalo “ground zero for the entire county for lead poisoning.”

The city and county both have the ability to inspect properties for lead, but their approach has been largely reactive: They mostly responded to complaints, rather than taking the initiative to inspect units to determine if lead was present.

The city now plans a more proactive approach, in part due to the advocacy of Niagara District Council Member David Rivera and Fillmore District Council Member Mitch Nowakowski. A pair of amendments to the city’s ordinance will be particularly impactful, Nowakowski said.

Until now, inspectors did not have the authority to inspect the interiors of rental units for lead. The updated law gives them that power every three years.

“That’s the biggest key for me,” Nowakowski said.  

The second amendment imposes new consequences for landlords whose properties fail inspection. They’re barred from renting the apartment if it’s vacant. If it’s occupied, they can’t evict the tenants for nonpayment of rent. The latter provision is an effort to stop landlords from retaliating against tenants who report concerns.

“We want to empower our residents and tenants to be able to report lead problems,” Nowakowski said.

The amendments do not regulate owner-occupied units, though. That’s a concern for Matteliano, as it leaves out many rental units.

“That’s the piece I would like to see changed,” she said.

Nowakowski said owner-occupied units are a “separate issue” that will require its own approach. The first hurdle will be identifying the homes, which are not part of the city’s rental registry and  not listed in any city database, he said.

Andrew McLellan, president of Environmental Education Associates Inc., who trains inspectors and others in how to identify and abate lead contamination, said there is room to strengthen rules regarding interior renovations. 

In cities like Rochester that effectively combat lead poisoning, inspectors can review interior renovation work to evaluate whether it is done to the federal safety standards and hold up occupancy certificates if out of compliance, he said. 

Loans and grants will be available 

Matteliano and Nowakowski said the new approach seeks to avoid adversarial relationships between tenants and landlords. Renters are better protected from lead through a proactive inspection model. 

Landlords, meanwhile, will need help paying to abate the hazards. The work isn’t cheap, especially to those who own a single income property. That’s most Buffalo landlords.

Matteliano said local property owners are primarily “mom and pops” who own only one rental property. They make up 79 percent of Buffalo’s 14,700 landlords. Another 15 percent own two properties and the remaining 6 percent own four or more. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, remediation costs can run between $8 and $15 per square foot. That means cleaning up the city’s “high risk” properties could have a $100 million to $200 million price tag.

Matteliano said the Community Foundation, in collaboration with city and county officials, will work to head off people’s inability to pay for the work with grant and loan options.

Among them are revolving loan funds being set up by the Community Foundation and the city  through its Urban Renewal Agency. This year Matteliano said the foundation aims to roll out a $2 million fund. The city has set aside $400,000 in federal grant money.

“This is a system,” she said. “We’re going to hold people accountable, we’re going to help them understand why this is important, and we’re going to provide them resources to remediate these properties, because we need this to get done ASAP.”