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Know Your Rights
Source: Make the Road New York
Subject: Housing & Environmental Justice
Type: Pubs & Reports

If Walls Could Talk: How Landlords Fail to Obey Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Laws in Bushwick

Lead-based paint can poison young children. In children, lead can cause learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, decreased intelligence, nervous system and kidney damage, and other serious health problems that may be permanent.
According to the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (“DHMH”):

“Preventing exposure to lead is the only effective way to ensure that children do not suffer long-term consequences of lead poisoning. Prevention requires reducing the sources of lead in the environment and/or protecting children from exposure to those sources.”

In 2000, the federal government called for eliminating elevated blood lead levels in children (defined as blood lead levels of 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood ("μg/dL") or greater) by 2010, primarily through eliminating lead hazards in their homes; New York City has adopted this goal as well, and there is no doubt that much progress has been made in reducing childhood lead poisoning. According to the most recent publicly available data from DHMH, the number of children under age 6 newly identified with blood lead levels ≥10 μg/dL decreased by nearly an order of magnitude from 19,232 in 1995 to 1,947 in 2007. But since only 41% of children are tested for lead as required by law, the actual number of children with elevated blood lead levels is no doubt significantly higher, and as DHMH recognized in its most recent annual report, “lead poisoning remains a serious public health problem in NYC."

Two important laws should work in tandem to help reduce the possibility of children ingesting lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust in residential rental properties in New York City. The first is the New York City Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Act of 2003, commonly known as Local Law 1 of 2004, which obligates landlords and the City to prevent exposure to lead paint hazards in housing and day care facilities.

Local Law 1 went into effect on August 2, 2004, and imposes certain mandates upon the City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (“HPD”) to timely inspect dwellings for deteriorated lead-based paint hazards in response to either a tenant’s specific complaint of lead-based paint hazards or whenever inspecting a dwelling unit with a child under age 6. However, the City had previously estimated that of the estimated 2,000,000 housing units which contained some lead-based paint some 323,000 units are occupied by families with children less than 6 years of age. The City Council, in enacting Local Law 1, recognized that HPD could not possibly perform routine inspections for lead hazards in all these units, and thus also made it “the responsibility of every owner of a multiple dwelling to investigate dwelling units for lead-based paint hazards and to address such hazards on a case-by-case basis as the conditions may warrant, taking such actions as are necessary to prevent a child from becoming lead poisoned.” Among these landlord responsibilities are specific mandates to ascertain whether children under 6 reside in the dwelling, and, upon receiving an affirmative response:

  • Inspect the dwelling at least annually for lead-based paint hazards;
  • Promptly correct lead-based paint hazards;
  • Use specified safe work practices performed by properly trained personnel when correcting lead-based paint hazards or otherwise disturbing lead-based paint or paint of unknown lead content;
  • Properly clean up after such work and perform clearance tests for the presence of lead in dust; and
  • Provide tenants with the results of inspections and dust tests, as well as educational materials in English and Spanish about their rights and responsibilities under Local Law 1.

Local Law 1 also requires that upon the turnover of a vacant apartment, the landlord not only remediate lead hazards but also permanently lead-based paint on window and door friction surfaces, and certify this in writing to the incoming tenant.

The other law is the federal Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act of 1992, which requires landlord to educate tenants by disclosing to them all known facts and documents pertaining to lead-based paint in the dwelling, and also to provide tenants with a federally-approved pamphlet about the dangers of lead-based in the home.

Landlords’ compliance with these ongoing statutory obligations would seem to be a key component in achieving the City’s goal of ending elevated childhood blood leads by the end of 2010. In order to evaluate landlord compliance with the Local Law 1 and the federal disclosure laws, from the Summer of 2007 through the Spring of 2009, the New York City Coalition to end Lead Poisoning (“NYCCELP”) and the community group Make the Road New York (“MRNY”) conducted a survey of 120 tenants in Bushwick, Brooklyn, to learn to what extent their landlords comply with these laws.

Bushwick is a low-income community of color located in the heart of NYC’s so-called “lead belt”: DHMH data has often ranked Bushwick as one of the communities with the largest numbers of children with reported elevated blood lead levels. Despite the explicit mandates of these laws to protect children from lead-based paint hazards in rental property, our survey found rampant non-compliance in virtually every aspect of landlord responsibility under these laws.

As we approach the milestone of 5 years since Local Law 1 came into effect, the results of this survey indicate that because many negligent landlords fail to fully comply with their legal responsibilities children in NYC are still not receiving the full benefit of these necessary primary prevention measures, particularly in a low-income community of color where children are at highest risk of lead poisoning.

The NYC Plan recognized that reducing the number of cases to zero by the end of 2010 will require creative prevention strategies and increased collaboration among governmental and non-governmental organizations. With that target date just 1½ years away, current trends do not indicate NYC will reach its goal unless we achieve more effective compliance with Local Law 1’s comprehensive mandates through enhanced enforcement by City agencies.