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Eight Ways to Address Philadelphia’s Lead Poisoning Epidemic

Housing

Eight Ways to Address Philadelphia’s Lead Poisoning Epidemic

Date Posted: 
03/30/2017

Many families do not realize they are living in toxic homes. Lead paint puts children at risk for serious health issues and developmental delays, yet housing laws regarding lead paint are poorly enforced. Too many Landlords fail to take steps to ensure rental properties are free from lead paint hazards, and the damage is often already done by the time a lead paint problem is uncovered. CLS represents clients experiencing issues with lead paint, but enforcement of housing laws is key in preventing lead poisoning altogether, and keeping our city’s children safe.

Here are eight ways Philadelphia can prevent lead poisoning in children:

  1. Ensure that landlords are complying with existing lead safety laws before they are allowed to rent units. Landlords must give a disclosure of lead safety to tenants before leasing the unit, and must have a certified lead inspector inspect their property and certify that the property is lead safe before a tenant with a child six or under moves in, but these laws are not adequately enforced.  There are 273,000 rental units in Philadelphia, at least 26,000 of these house children aged 6 and under, yet Philadelphia Department of Public Health has only received approximately 1,500 lead free or lead safe certificates from landlords.  L&I and the Health Department must communicate with each other more effectively to ensure that landlords comply with the law, and L&I must be more aggressive in removing licenses when landlords fail to certify their properties or falsify certifications. A landlord must obtain a lead safe certification before obtaining or renewing a rental license and certify this on the license application if children six or under will reside in the property. This too must be enforced.  We are glad to learn that L&I are making some changes to ensure that starting in 2018 landlords will not be able to renew their license if they have a notice of violation from the Health Department.
  2. Relatedly, PHA and Section 8 tenants should also be equally protected. PHA properties represent 7.3% of cases of children exposed to lead in housing in Philadelphia. While PHA properties and Section 8 properties have their own procedures, they need to be closely examined to see the results. Changes may have to be made to have PHA properties and Section 8 properties comply with local lead laws including the Lead Safe Certification.
  3. Dispose of the child age requirement and require all properties built before 1978 to be lead certified. The current law applies to properties with children 6 years of age or under living there where the property was built before 1978, and does not apply to circumstances where a child is born after the unit has been rented. The law should apply to all properties built before 1978, so that all children are protected, including children who are born into a home after a tenant has already been living there, and children who frequently visit a home that they are not residing in. Requiring all rental properties to be lead certified will also ensure that landlords do not discriminate against families with young children in order to avoid the certification requirement.
  4. Protect landlords who are in compliance with the law by enforcing penalties against landlords who fail to comply. Penalties must be pursued for landlords who do not comply with the law, in order to ensure that the rental marketplace is fair for landlords who do comply, and in order to increase public safety.  Few fines have been collected for failure to comply with the lead safe certificate ordinance. Although the Health Department and the Law Department have the ability to bring landlords to court to assess penalties for non-compliant landlords, this does not happen often enough. Responses by the Health Department must be dramatically improved when a child is poisoned in order to encourage more landlords to comply with the law. Lead court must be more aggressive in issuing fines and violations, and fines for landlords who do not ensure that their properties are safe should be higher than the cost of testing and fixing a property. If more landlords are fined when they are in noncompliance with the law, the revenue collected from fines should offset some of the cost of hiring more health inspectors, ultimately increasing efficiency and public safety.  The Law Department must also be aggressive in taking collection actions, such as pursuing judgments and liens, when landlords do not pay the fines.
  5. Devote resources to hiring more inspectors. When lead is found in a child’s blood stream, the Health Department is supposed to send investigators to the property.  Currently, there is not enough funding for an appropriate number of lead inspectors, leading to a backlog in investigations and problems not being fixed.  Funding cuts have led to a decrease from 65 to 25, meaning that non-compliant landlords have been able to ignore the laws without fear of penalty, and preventative measures haven’t been taken. By enforcing the laws and penalizing landlords who do not comply, the City should obtain funding for more inspectors.   Ideally, by obtaining more inspectors, the Health Department will be able to lower their action level from a blood lead level of 10 micrograms per deciliter to 5 for inspection and case follow-up. In order to keep children safe, an investigation and significant intervention must come sooner as damages can occur at levels lower than 10.
  6. Help landlords comply with the law by providing loans or resources to help them test and fix their properties. Many homes, especially in poor neighborhoods, were built prior to 1978 and may have lead paint.  The cost to test and to fix can be high in some cases. In order to ensure compliance with the law, the City should provide resources to landlords who need financial assistance to make their properties safe.
  7. Make it easier for consumers to easily access lead certificates and compliance information. Tenants need access to information to protect and advocate for their children. A publicly available database of properties that are certified lead safe or lead free and/or landlords who are compliant would help consumers make safe, informed decisions about where to live. Include increased access for tenants and their advocates to the Health Department and information on where they are in the inspection process (For instance, has the Health Department inspected and found lead, has the Health Department sent a letter to the landlord, etc.)
  8. Lower the level of lead exposure that triggers an investigation. Too often we are learning about a property having lead paint after a child has already registered dangerous lead levels in blood.  Investigations should occur when a lower level of lead is determined. Currently, the Health Department takes action when a child has a blood lead level of 10 micrograms per deciliter, although the CDC recommends testing at a level of 5. In order to keep children safe, an investigation and intervention must come sooner as damages can occur at lower levels.