Painted into a Corner

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For Megan Charlop, who runs New York City’s only lead safe house, the solution is obvious: Pass a new lead paint law, enforce it and save children’s lives. Period.

Nearly 17 years ago, the city passed a landmark lead poisoning prevention act. But the law has yet to do what its supposed to do: keep kids from getting sick.

Advocates had hoped that 1982’s aggressive Local Law 1–which requires landlords to strip, replaster and repaint all walls painted before 1960–would prevent lead poisoning, which results in permanent brain damage for thousands of New York City children each year.

But almost since the day the law passed, successive city administrations have argued that it is excessive, expensive and therefore unenforceable. The city has ignored the law whenever possible and fought lead paint prevention activists in court to keep from having to enforce it.

“The law isn’t respected, the city skimps on the health code, and landlords aren’t taken to task if they fail to follow regulations,” Charlop says. “Right now, it doesn’t work.”

This year, the city ran out of stalling tactics and dodges. Faced with a fourth citation for contempt of court and possible jail terms for non-compliance, city housing and health officials have finally developed regulations to enforce the law. They are rules that, if followed, would require landlords to de-lead every building in the city–even ones that pose no immediate threat to children.

On the eve of the passage of these new regulations, advocates on all sides concede that the law is probably too tough. A most unlikely coalition–including Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the landlord lobby and environmental and children’s advocates–agree that the city needs a new lead paint law. They just can’t agree on what it should require.

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In old, poorly maintained apartments, lead paint doesn’t stay on the walls. The paint tastes sweet, so toddlers are drawn to suck on paint chips on window sills and floors. Water damage makes the paint crumble into a fine powder that kids inhale.

Once in the bloodstream, the metal causes serious nervous system problems for young children. Lead-poisoned kids have trouble learning and concentrating, and the impact on their gastrointestinal tract can be severe. Almost immediately after ingesting lead, children begin to act differently. Some become lethargic, others become hyperactive. This is why lead-based paints have been outlawed for decades.

When her 3-year-old son Gary got poisoned, says Glenda Newton, his behavior changed dramatically. “He was acting crazy, hitting himself, having temper tantrums. He’d never done that before,” she says. He was later diagnosed with a blood lead level of more than 45 micrograms per deciliter, more than four times the Centers for Disease Control’s threshold for lead poisoning.

Newton’s landlord had refused to fix a hole in her roof, so lead paint chips rained down from the ceiling onto the floor of her apartment. “He gave me every excuse in the book,” she says. “All he did was put up a plastic sheet. When it rained, the sheet would fall down.” Gary had to have five days of intravenous chelation therapy in Jamaica Hospital to clear the lead from his blood.

When the hospital released Gary, they told Glenda not to take him home again, sending the family to Charlop’s lead safe house until they could find a new apartment. The house, run by Montefiore hospital, takes up two floors of a neat brick building across from Van Cortlandt Park in the Norwood section of the Bronx. It provides a handful of families with a clean place to live for one to two months, until they find a new home or their apartments can be cleared of lead by the landlord or city.

According to the city Department of Health, between 1,500 and 2,000 kids under age 6 are newly diagnosed with lead poisoning each year (although last year’s tally of 1,049 cases was considerably lower). These statistics may understate the problem, since the city uses a higher threshold to measure lead poisoning than the feds recommend. Public Advocate Mark Green’s staff has found that about two-thirds of all New York City apartments and houses have lead paint, and more than 30,000 children in New York City have had elevated lead levels in the blood–81 percent of them Latino or African-American.

The solution seems simple: Write and pass a law that requires landlords to clean up dangerous peeling paint. But there’s too much money at stake for lead paint laws to be simple. Department of Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner Richard Roberts has said that enforcing Local Law 1 will cost the city $100 million annually and cost landlords–including the city itself–an average of $15,000 to clean each unit.

So the history of lead paint legislation in New York City has been a story of stall tactics. Prior to the early 1980s, landlords were forced to remove the lead from their apartments only after a kid had been poisoned. City Councilmember Stanley Michels passed Local Law 1 in 1982 to avert lead poisoning tragedies, but the city ignored the law. Three years later, the New York City Coalition to End Lead Poisoning (NYCCELP) sued to make the city enforce the law. In 1989, the New York State Supreme Court held the city in contempt of court for failing to enforce Local Law 1. The city lost its appeal two years later.

In 1994 the Giuliani administration was held in contempt of court for the same problem, and the next year the court increased the pressure by ruling that the matter could be considered a class action lawsuit. The city was held in contempt a third time on April 30, 1997. Last March the city lost another appeal.

This time, the judge issued a court order that demanded the city write rules that follow directly from Local Law 1. Last fall, in response to this explicit order–and the judge’s threat to throw HPD’s Richard Roberts in jail–HPD and the Health Department produced regulations that would finally give teeth to the 1982 law.

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Ironically, today everyone recognizes that Local Law 1 should never have been enforced. Removing intact lead paint generates more toxic dust than leaving it alone. Advocates also concede that requiring complete abatements could push landlords in low-income neighborhoods into bankruptcy. But now, the only thing that could prevent the city from enforcing the onerous old law is a new law.

There’s already one waiting in the wings. Two years ago, Councilmember Michels produced Intro 205, which focuses on peeling paint and window sills rather than insisting that all apartments be stripped of their lead paint. The bill’s sponsors say that under this law, clean-up costs could be as low as $450 per occupied apartment.

However, landlord advocates like the Rent Stabilization Association argue that even this more moderate bill would encourage owners to abandon housing rather than pay the costs of abatement. They say that the clean-up requirements, like relocating tenants during partial abatements and requiring windows to be completely replaced, are too tough and would end up benefiting lawyers more than tenants or landlords.

The Giuliani administration doesn’t like the bill either. Health and housing officials refuse to consider the bill, or even admit that it exists. Michels tried during a contentious December City Council hearing to get Roberts to say the words “Intro 205.” Roberts refused. “They’re simply not taking this seriously,” Michels said afterward.

Attorneys with NYCCELP want the city administration to give Intro 205 a chance. They’ve offered a deal: If the city agrees to consider the bill, they promise not to push the courts to enforce the most recent contempt order. Assistant Corporation Counsel Daniel M. Richmond wrote back on January 6 that the city would not concede to “any parameters or requirements” concerning new legislation.

So Intro 205 is unlikely to ever get to the City Council floor for a vote–or even to the housing committee for a formal hearing. Instead, Housing Committee Chairman Archie Spigner may push his own legislation. He acknowledged in mid-January that “there is a draft of a bill that has been circulated and is being discussed.” A spokesperson for Council Speaker Peter Vallone has confirmed that discussions on an alternative bill are underway between Spigner, the council and the mayor’s office.

Lead paint activists assume that Spigner will push a landlord-friendly bill on the council–as he has done twice before. But this time, they may be in for a surprise. Spigner told City Limits in early January that Intro 205 has “elements that can be the basis of a negotiated consensus bill.”

Charlop remains suspicious of a last-minute political deal between Giuliani, Vallone and the landlord lobby that would critically weaken lead paint laws.

“These are scary times,” she says, as she slices up an apple for one of the kids staying at the home. “Suddenly, after all these court cases and all these years of discussion, it’s as if something has to happen very quickly. I’m afraid a good piece of legislation won’t get passed…. We’re talking about poor families in old and decaying buildings. Unless the city puts real pressure on landlords, children will continue to get very sick.”

Leon Lazaroff is a Manhattan-based freelance writer.