On the eve of the City Council’s February 4 vote to approve a strict new lead poisoning law, 27 nonprofit housing groups ran a giant ad in the New York Times, Daily News, Amsterdam News and El Diario: “Unintended Consequences: Lead Paint Bill Jeopardizes Affordable Housing.” Last week, nine of those organizations went even further, filing a lawsuit in New York Supreme Court to block implementation of the legislation.
Led by the Community Preservation Corporation, the housing finance group, they argue that the law makes it nearly impossible to rehab older buildings without risking a slew of frivolous lawsuits or paying skyrocketing insurance rates.
But citywide, affordable housing developers are split on the litigation. While those we interviewed all seem to want the same thing—lead-safe, affordable housing—they had very different ideas on how to get there.
Pratt Area Community Council, a Brooklyn nonprofit, was part of the coalition that pushed for the bill, and it remains a staunch defender of the law. “There’s no cure for lead poisoning—the only thing you can do is prevent it,” said acting executive director Deb Howard. “As a neighborhood-based housing developer and property manager where lead poisoning is an issue, this was the only responsible position we could take.”
Many other groups have concerns about the law, but aren’t willing to go to court over it. “That’s not a decision you take lightly,” said Harold DeRienzo, president of Community Assisted Tenant Controlled Housing. “Many people on my board are sensitive to the advocacy behind the bill,” he added—and reluctant to sue the City Council.
CPC, on the other hand, is siding firmly with the Bloomberg administration, which has long opposed the bill as overly cumbersome and legally fraught. “We didn’t think we needed a new bill,” said CPC’s executive vice president, John McCarthy, pointing out that the city’s lead poisoning rates have already declined by more than 75 percent since the mid-1990s. “This is a major deterrent for a good landlord to take over [a dilapidated building] and turn it around.”
Matthew Chachère, a lawyer from the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation who helped draft the bill, disagrees. “The whole law is a massive compromise from what the current law is,” he said. “Every objection has been met. If you can’t manage housing without poisoning people, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.”
Still, Chachère admits, there may be ways to clarify the sticking points. He has been meeting with a handful of housing developers and with city officials to fine-tune details such as how best to certify a gut-rehabilitated building, and how to avoid duplicating abatement work. They also hope to fight back against the insurance industry, which is increasingly declining to cover developers for liability involving lead poisoning claims.
Local Initiatives Support Corporation, another housing finance group, is also involved in the talks. Its New York office director, Denise Scott, sees nothing inconsistent about trying to build housing and also keep it safe. “In hindsight, it seems like two years ago we all should have been at the same table, trying to do both things,” she said. “But we didn’t do it then so we’re doing it now.”