It’s Wed., Nov. 30, and City Council’s chambers are standing room only. Councilwoman Marian Tasco’s spanking her gavel, ordering all those standing in the back to move upstairs and please, everyone, shut up. If you don’t go upstairs, we can’t proceed. It’s a fire hazard.
Many of those in the back do as they’re told, but it doesn’t stop the catcalls and boos erupting from all corners of the audience pews and top level. Emotions are high and so are the stakes. Council is debating Bill 100011, “Lead Paint Disclosure and Certification,” which would force landlords to comply with city law and get their units inspected for lead when beginning a new lease. (On average, according to several testifying proponents of the bill, a lease is turned over every three years.)
“Landlords make money off of people renting their units,” testifies Public Citizens for Children and Youth Health Policy’s Director Colleen McCauley. “They should not be able to make money off of poisoning kids.”
An older man in a red collared shirt sitting almost directly behind McCauley takes a big whiff of the oxygen tubes penetrating his nostrils before screaming alongside the other landlords in the audience: “Booo!” “No!” They’re even waving their hands at the four PCCY members giving testimony. Tasco bangs her gavel again, and when all’s silent, you can hear someone scream, “False testimony!”
McCauley says existing lead laws are not enough, even though there’s been a steep decline over the last three decades, since national and local lead poisoning laws were put into place. The Philadelphia Department of Health estimates 65,000 children were affected by lead poisoning in 1993. In 2010, that number was down to about 1,100. The health department says of these cases, 55 percent come from rental properties.
Lead poisoning in children is not pretty. It can affect numerous vital organs in their development stages, and can lead to a decline in mental function, memory loss, mood disorders, brain damage and, sometimes, death. Bill 100011, sponsored by Councilwomen Tasco and Blondell Reynolds Brown, would attempt to end lead poisoning for good. According to McCauley, childhood lead poisoning costs the city’s taxpayers more than $75 million in health-care costs, special education, juvenile delinquency costs and total lifetime earnings losses. Lead poisoning is almost mutually exclusive to children of low-income parents.
So, what kind of ogre would try to block a bill that would correct this?
Answer: Almost everyone here. And upstairs. And their reasons aren’t necessarily pro-kid death. At least not too much.
“Remediation cannot ensure a long-term solution to lead dust exposure,” says Victor Pinckney, president of the Homeowners Association of Philadelphia. “The presence of lead dust is often caused by factors beyond a landlord’s control.”
Pinckney and others, including Alan Krigman of KRF Management in University City, insist most lead poisoning comes from dust coming into homes through open windows and tracking contaminated soil on the floor. It could be wiped out if tenants showed some personal responsibility, and, they say, better parenting. And the problem as a whole is a catch-22. Low-income families are most affected by lead poisoning, yet if the bill is passed through general Council, those same families will have their rents raised by landlords not willing to eat the cost of yearly inspections on their properties. The bill, they say, will have the opposite effect of what it intends to do.
While most believe lead poisoning comes from old, peeling lead-based paint (which was banned nationwide in 1978), the EPA notes that contaminated dust and soil are two of the main causes of poisoning in children—mostly because of the exhaust of leaded gasoline formerly used in cars, which penetrated the atmosphere and then rained down on our muddy shores.
Because of this, says Krigman, any test done by a city inspector could be immediately soiled by, well, soil. “You can do whatever you want to the inside of a building,” he says. “But as soon as you open a window in warm weather, the breeze is going to come in from outside and contaminate the apartment … You can get your place completely clean, you get your inspector to come in with these tests, but if one of your employees comes in from outside and he hasn’t put little booties on his shoes, he’s probably tracked lead dust into the place, and you’ll fail the test.”
Aside from that, lead paint contamination comes from raising and lowering double-hung wooden windows. The paint scrapes and falls on the window sill as lead-contaminated dust. Kids then ingest it, usually through their mouths. Of the several tips the Centers for Disease Control provide for combating lead poisoning, one is wet-mopping floors and wet-wiping windowsills every two to three weeks, as well as “prevent[ing] children from playing in bare soil.”
Krigman refers to this as the “parental responsibility” provision. “Some apartments I’ve gone into, you wonder how people live there. If the parents aren’t willing to take responsibility to clean the place, lead dust isn’t going to be their only problem. They’re going to have problems with mold, rodents, bugs, their kids’ asthma.”
Which leads to another series of problems the city would rather turn a blind eye to. Families living in their own homes are exempt—as is the Philadelphia Housing Authority, in the version of the bill that passed committee last Wednesday. Krigman believes the bill, therefore, unfairly targets landlords.
Former Philadelphia Republican Mayoral candidate—and Realtor with Prudential Fox & Roach—John Featherman, agrees. “Landlords are discriminated against unfairly and, perhaps, illegally,” he says. “This bill only requires landlords to perform the test and maintain a safe lead environment despite incontrovertible factual evidence that even the safest rental property, even one built after 1978, can become contaminated if it is next door to an owner-occupied home where lead is present and travels into an open window or door of the rental property.”
Featherman believes the exclusion of the PHA, “which houses some of our poorest, most vulnerable populations,” makes it clear the city wants to exclude itself from any burden. He also says that if the bill passes general Council at Thursday’s vote, it will further raise the cost of doing real-estate business in Philadelphia, drive up costs for tenants and increase the amount of time between the previous tenant moving out and you moving into a place (since a test needs to be conducted between leases). And there are a limited number of inspectors around to conduct the job.
The law, critics say, doesn’t take into account spaces that are being rented under the radar. It also uses the same broad brush on properties, whether they’re being rented by families with kids, who can be affected by lead, or older people, who cannot be affected by it.
Similarly, Krigman doesn’t believe City Council cares all that much about what real-estate investor Jim Sims (who testified at last Wednesday’s hearing) calls a “feel-good bill” that hurts low-income residents. After all, says Krigman, it’s been on tap for two years and Councilwoman Brown even let HAPCO and the Apartment Association of Greater Philadelphia take an entire year to finish their report regarding the cost of such a bill (between $6,000-$30,000 per unit upon failing a test), which is mentioned several times during testimony.