Philadelphia’s rowhomes are old. You know; you’re probably living in one right now. If you thought random infestations, leaky pipes and mold were your biggest problems, you’re wrong. Because before 1978—when 88 to 97 percent of Philly’s current housing stock was built—there were no standards in place with regard to lead-based paint and dust, which can have dire consequences on those who are poisoned, especially children. Lead has been proven to cripple a number of organs in the body, and exposure can lead to numerous complications such as a decline in mental functions, memory loss, mood disorders and weakness, according to the Mayo Clinic. For children, the consequences can be brain damage or even death.
Thankfully, the city has some standards in place to combat the problem. Health Code allows tenants to get their newly rented homes inspected by a certified lead inspector within 10 days of moving in. If unsafe traces of lead are detected, the tenant may terminate the lease. Not only that, all lessors are required to disclose lead-based paint hazards to tenants upon rental. That combined with federal grant money the Department of Public Health uses to remediate homes has led to a steep decline in lead-poisoned children. According to Nan Feyler of the Health Department, the percentage of lead-poisoned children in targeted, low-income testing areas has decreased from 80 percent in 1989 to 2.83 percent (about 2,600 kids) in 2009. In 2010, that number was about 1,100.
So with the help of a citywide lead-poisoning-prevention coalition, Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown introduced a bill in January that would require a city-mandated certification saying your property is lead-free or lead-safe before it can be rented and before each new tenant moves in. “We should acknowledge that our city has made enormous progress, and we would be remiss not to recognize and recognize landlords who, on their own, have dealt with this issue in a very, very responsible way by investing thousands of dollars,” says Brown of Bill 100011—“Lead Paint Disclosure.” “In so doing, we still have a problem.”
Groups like the Apartment Association of Greater Philadelphia (AAGP) and Homeowners Association of Philadelphia (HAPCO), which were involved in the amending process, are opposed to forced certifications. Their main concern is how the costs of new requirements would end up getting passed onto tenants, hurting low-income city renters. Their main opponent is Public Citizens for Children and Youth, joined by the Health Department, Community Legal Services, the Tenant Union Representative Network and others. They maintain money doesn’t matter, that we have the technology to detect, prevent and treat lead poisoning.
Hearings broke down in June, and Brown hopes to bring the legislation back in the fall, assuming a deal can be reached. “We will continue to meet, meet and meet again so that all sides have an opportunity to present their thoughts and concerns,” she says.
On the surface, the problem is an age-old one in politics. Two sides arguing the semantics of safety vs. money. This time, though, the opposing factions are making fiscal and health arguments on behalf of those directly affected—the tenants, many of whom are low-income. Which means the city may soon have to decide which is more important for the poor and working-class families in the city: Being safe or affording a place to live.
“Don’t get me wrong, we think one child with lead poisoning is one child too many,” says HAPCO President Victor Pinckney. “But the way this bill was written, it’s going to cause a huge upsurge in the cost to property owners who then have to pass it onto tenants.”
The bill requires that a property built before 1978 be inspected each time a new tenant moves in. If the property is deemed unsafe, the city takes over inspections and charges the landlord for all costs. And according to HAPCO and AAGP—which commissioned a study during the run-up to the June hearings—certifications would cost between $6,000 and $20,000.
In turn, tenants would have to pay about $150 to $500 more per month “for several years,” according to Christine Young Gertz, AAGP’s government affairs director. She testified last month, “the bill would likely cause a severe disruption in the availability of privately owned low-income rental units. Approximately 21,000 to 52,000 units would come off the rental market for some period of time, and some would be permanently removed from the market.” All the while, demand for low-income rental properties are expected to continue rising.
Of course, PCCY says those numbers are exaggerated. Not that it really matters if kids are getting sick, which they are. That means, they say, landlords aren’t doing their part. “You’re already not allowed to have properties in the city that have lead hazards,” says Colleen McCauley, health policy director for PCCY. “But if 55 percent of kids being poisoned in the city are getting it from rental properties, then something is wrong … We’re just asking for property maintenance to be enforced.”
Evette Gingrow’s son is a victim of shoddy lead maintenance. In her testimony before Council last month, she said her 5-year-old son’s blood lead level had recently risen after she and her family moved into an Olney rowhome found through a real-estate agency. He was then diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, and her family was forced to move. Regarding the price-tag complaints of HAPCO and AAGP, she stated, “How do I put a price on trying to repair my child’s life? There’s no comparison.”
McCauley calls whatever costs associated with certifying properties as lead-safe within the city “the price of doing business…It’s not OK to find out if your property has lead or not by seeing if your kid is poisoned.”
Pinckney says he’s willing to look at other options, such as a tax on all new paint with proceeds going into fixing up rental properties. New Jersey has a 50-cent-per-gallon paint tax, which helps fund the Lead Hazard Control Assistance Act, which he says might be a better alternative.
Neither side knows for sure what kind of deal will come through in the fall – or if there will even be one. And if there is, whether or not it will pass. But in this case, it’s possible that both sides can be—and are—right about their main points. It really just comes down to what’s more important: Money or safety?
If you suspect lead exposure in your home, call the Department of Public Health’s ”Get The Lead Out” hotline at 215.685.2797 or visit phila.gov/health/childhoodleadphila.gov/health/childhoodlead