Feb 13


Community groups question Buffalo’s lead program

39 groups send letter to mayor and commissioner suggesting City Hall is failing to comply with 2020 law.


Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, executive director of Partnership for the Public Good, speaks at a press conference Tuesday, Feb. 13 about the low number of home inspections Buffalo has completed to survey for lead. Photo by I’Jaz Ja’ciel.

Nearly 40 local community organizations are questioning whether  City Hall is fully complying with a more than 3-year-old program that was designed, in part, to help combat lead poisoning in city housing. They’re giving the city a month to prove that inspectors have been fully implementing the program.

Partnership for the Public Good addressed a letter to Mayor Byron Brown and Catherine Amdur, commissioner of the Department of Permits and Inspections, demanding enforcement of the Proactive Rental Inspections Program, which was unanimously passed and enacted by the Common Council in November 2020.

The constitutional rights of the most vulnerable residents of the City are being violated by the City of Buffalo given its continuing failure to enforce the law,” read a part of the letter, which representatives of the local organizations hand delivered to city officials Tuesday morning.

The 39 groups signing the letter — which include the Partnership as well as the Buffalo Prenatal Perinatal Network, Allentown Association, Jericho Road Community Health Center and Western New York Law Center — are questioning the city’s commitment to the program based on limited numbers City Hall released on how many inspections have been conducted.

“The program is broken in that sense of not seeing it through to the last important step,” said Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, executive director of Partnership for the Public Good.

The Partnership helped the Department of Permits and Inspections hold workshops for landlords and tenants when the program was introduced.

“We’re now stepping back to do more outside advocacy again because our trust that the officials and the mayor actually intend to implement this program is just going down and down,” Súilleabháin said.

The Partnership’s letter cited a report Amdur put out last March that stated 156 certificates of rental compliance had been issued for 4,334 inspections conducted from 2020 through 2022.

Given that there are about 36,000 rental units that need to be inspected — then re-inspected every three years — the Partnership is questioning the city’s ability to comply with the law’s inspection requirements. Their letter claims that 88 percent of the city’s rental units had not been inspected as of 2022, according to the figures in Amdur’s report.

According to Súilleabháin, the numbers are even lower than have been publicly reported.

“We have been in some closed meetings where the verbally reported numbers from the department actually look lower than the previous year’s report,” she said.

The city responded by stating it has conducted close to 4,800 inspections, including almost 140 in 2024. A total of 415 certificates of rental compliance have been issued to date, including 46 so far this year.

Moreover, the city said inspectors were severely limited by COVID-19 restrictions, as the program had been rolled out at the height of the pandemic.

“Like any new ordinance, challenges were revealed as the program was implemented,” a spokesperson for the city said in a statement.

The city also said that while it is conducting the inspections,  Erie County – not the city – is responsible for lead hazards in Buffalo.

“PRI would cost the City almost $2 million a year to meet the defined goal. It’s important to note that the Erie County Department of Health has the mandate to address lead hazards – not the city. The New York State Department of Health gives Erie County millions of dollars to inspect homes for lead paint hazards and cite owners. The city does not receive that funding,” the city statement says.

Kara Kane, a spokesperson for the Erie County Department of Health,  responded that while Erie County does receive county and state funding for lead poisoning prevention, inspection and enforcement, the issues raised Tuesday were specifically about a city program.

“The questions raised by community members today seemed to relate to a specific law that was passed by the city of Buffalo. Enforcement of that law is not under our department’s purview,” she said.

With lead remediation being one of the goals of the city inspections, community members who signed the letter are concerned about the potential escalation of child lead poisoning.

More than 200 Buffalo children are diagnosed with lead poisoning annually, with the majority living in rental units, according to the letter.

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Lead poisoning in children can cause brain damage, delayed development, learning and behavioral problems and hearing and speech problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Unless effective primary prevention measures in rental housing are taken by the City of Buffalo, as contemplated by the Proactive Rental Inspections law, rates of childhood lead-poisoning will not substantially decrease from the present unacceptable levels, and the City will continue to fail to meet its obligation to ensure that rental housing is safe and habitable for occupants,” the letter said.

The Proactive Rental Inspections Program requires a mandatory inspection of all one- and two-family non-owner-occupied properties, whether occupied or vacant. Compliant landlords will then receive a certificate of rental compliance for each property that passes inspection, which is subject to renewal every three years. The program was an amendment to the Rental Registration Program, which was enacted 20 years ago to help identify problem properties and absentee landlords.

Some of the properties that were issued certificates are approaching the three-year mark for re-inspection, which has Partnership representatives questioning the city’s ability to follow through on enforcement amid reports of a low number of initial inspections.

The letter called the city’s previous attempts to address the city’s lead crisis “sporadic, reactive, disorganized, and wholly insufficient to address the conditions of housing that cause the lead poisoning of children and other harms.”

Other concerned community members say that the program also has the ability to help address housing issues beyond lead if properly enforced.

“A program such as PRI is more than a policy change; it’s a lifeline for our community. By making this program mandatory and proactive, we can ensure that 60 percent of Buffalo residents living in rental properties can enjoy better living conditions,” said Janayia Capers, organizer for housing justice at PUSH Buffalo.

The community organizations’ letter mentioned a similar program in Rochester that the Partnership deemed effective in lead remediation.

Rochester’s Certificate of Occupancy Program was introduced in 2005 to begin inspections in the city’s most high-risk neighborhoods for lead poisoning. Nearly every rental unit was inspected within the first four years of the program and child lead poisoning cases in Monroe County decreased from 900 to 206 within a decade.

“The enforcement of similar legislation enacted in Rochester has served to significantly reduce the incidence of childhood lead-poisoning in that city. The proactive inspection strategies adopted by Rochester have proven to be the only effective way to substantially reduce the rate of childhood lead poisoning in communities with old housing stock, many low-income tenants, and a high percentage of renters,” PPG’s letter said.

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