Claire Wilson’s family drama started with a curious infant.
The Wilsons were delighted to watch their only child, Jude, grow — slowly and simultaneously so fast — as babies do. One month, he was lying on his tummy; the next, he was rolling to both sides; and then, he was moving all over the floor of the row house they rented in South Philly.
“He was crawling on an area on the floor, and maybe he put his hands in dust,” Wilson said. “He was … exploring and putting things in his mouth.”
The Wilsons had no clue that something was irreversibly harming their baby. Invisible particles of lead-based paint were pouring from windowsills and baseboards onto the floor; and from there, inevitably, into Jude’s mouth. They saw none of the paint flakes doctors typically warn about.
Then, at a check-up when Jude was 9 months old, their pediatrician took a routine blood test and the Wilsons’ world came crashing down. The blood test showed extremely high lead levels in Jude’s blood; they were seven times over the 5 micrograms per deciliter (μg/dL) threshold that indicates elevated levels.
“We were terrified,” Wilson said. “We didn't know anything about lead poisoning, it wasn’t something that we had ever learned about before. So we were very scared as to what that could mean and how we could protect our son.”
The Wilsons are not alone. Ten percent of children living in 16 zip codes in Philadelphia have elevated blood lead levels, according to 2014-2017 data from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. Sixty percent of the kids with high lead levels in the city live in rental units, as Claire Wilson and her family still do. The number of new lead cases identified has decreased in the last 10 years. But a law enacted in 2012 to stop babies from being poisoned has proved not to be effective. Lead poisoned over 1,600 children in Philadelphia in 2017.
A new set of bills introduced in City Council by Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown want to expand the current law to make it more effective. Some of Reynolds Brown’s anti-lead bills have already passed Council, but one in particular faces resistance. That bill would require landlords in the city to certify all rental units in buildings built befoew 1978 as lead-free before signing leases.
As the law stands now, the Philadelphia Lead Paint Disclosure & Certification Law requires landlords renting properties built before 1978 to families with children 6 years old or younger to certify that a unit is free of lead. But, according to the city, out of an estimated 22,000 rental units housing kids of those ages, only 5,776 have complied with the regulation.
Colleen McCauley, health policy director for Public Citizens for Children and Youth, says expanding the law to mandate lead certifications for all older rentals in the city would solve the enforcement problem. The Department of Licenses and Inspections could simply deny a rental-license renewal if the Health Department didn’t have a current certificate on file.
“Then everyone complies and it’s not a guessing game where these kids live,” McCauley said. “Also, we know that kids visit other houses and apartments. And sometimes kids are temporarily living in places where they are not actual tenants on the lease.”
According to the Health Department, 38 percent of children with significantly elevated lead levels have a secondary address where they spend time.
The bill to make lead certification universal for landlords of pre-1978 buildings faces significant resistance.
Industry lobbyists such as the Homeowners Association of Philadelphia, known as HAPCO, argue that expanding the regulation to all rental units would burden landlords without solving the problem. There’s no legislation forcing homeowners to abate lead, for example, although the city could sue parents neglecting their own children, said Harvey Spear, HAPCO’s president.
“It should be universal, for everybody and everywhere. But that’s impossible,” Spear said.
Impossible because L&I has limited inspectors to enforce such a regulation, Spear said, and because there’s a limited amount of lead professionals doing certificate inspections in the city.
“I manage over 30 buildings, over 300 apartments, and we have probably two children in Center City that live in the buildings,” he said. “It’s impossible for me to do lead-paint testing for 298 apartments.”
The opposition has slowed the bill, but advocates said Thursday that they hope to see City Council vote by June 20, when it breaks for summer.
The Wilsons never got a lead certificate, and they didn’t know to ask for one — their South Philly row home was old, but clean and in good shape. If Reynolds Brown’s bill becomes law, landlords like the one the Wilsons had won’t be able to renew their rental licenses without lead certificates.
“I thought my child was in a safe environment,” Wilson said. “We thought that our landlord gave us the information that he was supposed to, and that he was compliant.”
But he wasn’t. Jude is now 18 months old. He has already tested low for communication skills and is undergoing developmental and speech therapy. But it will take years for the Wilsons to find out the full array of consequences those few months of lead exposure will have on their son.
Science shows that no amount of lead is safe. Even at low levels, lead exposure in children can cause lower IQ, slowed growth, behavior and learning problems, anemia, and hearing problems. Some observational studies have linked early childhood lead exposure and future violent behavior or criminal activity, but direct causality hasn’t been proven.
“It’s a terrible feeling as a parent to know that you’ve allowed your child to be in an environment where they’ve been poisoned, and that from 9 months on, this is something that will irreversibly affect him for the rest of his life,” Wilson said.
Very few landlords voluntarily comply with the city’s current lead law. Between 2012 and 2017, the Health Department received a total of about 1,500 certificates. The number is a small fraction of the total rental units housing Philadelphia children over that five-year span, experts say.
The main problem, city agencies testified at a March Council hearing, is that there is no way for public agencies to know which of the approximately 270,000 rental units in Philadelphia shelter children.
Reynolds Brown told PlanPhilly that the low compliance rates were not anticipated when the current legislation was written. The law was a compromise reached after 18 months of negotiation, she added, saying it’s imperative for it to be revised.
The city has made efforts to increase compliance. L&I has started asking landlords renewing their rental licenses to affirm that they either have no children in their units or that they have submitted lead certificates to the Health Department. But L&I has no way of knowing if a landlord is telling the truth.
The Health Department has been using its immunization database to estimate where babies and toddlers live and sends letters to landlords asking for lead certifications. As of January, the department has sent 6,100 letters, given 2,500 code-violation notices to those who didn’t respond, and got about 4,000 new certificates.
“While that represents progress, it still means that 70 to 75% of children in rental properties are not protected by the current law,” said Thomas Farley, the city’s health commissioner.
Moreover, the current law doesn’t include rental units managed by the Philadelphia Housing Authority or that are part of the Housing Choice Voucher program because those are subject to federal requirements administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Erica Miller, a mother of six, said that’s unfair.
Four of her kids have been poisoned by lead — 16-year-old Khalide, 9-year-old Makhi, and 3-year-old twins Micah and My’ell, three of them while living in public housing in North Philadelphia. The twins have speech problems. Makhi has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and needs special classes at school. Khalide has had severe behavioral issues since preschool, has been arrested three times, and is currently on house arrest with a GPS around his ankle.
“That’s probably what I have to look forward with the rest of the kids,” Miller said.
She said it’s devastating to see the problems they have when they’re trying to socialize — their behavior is so overwhelming that it overshadows all of their other qualities. Or to compare them with their straight-A sisters who didn’t got lead poisoning.
“It’s always a phone call, about ‘Oh, your child did this or did that, can you come pick him up?,’ or ‘They’re getting suspended.’ So it’s always ... if you’re not at the doctor, you’re back to school; if you’re back at school, you know, it’s always something,” Miller said.
When Miller moved into the house where her kids got poisoned, she didn’t have an option. The house was old, but nice, she said. She remembers she was given a mandatory pamphlet about lead, informing her about the risks. But in the five years she lived there, she said, she never got a lead inspection. That changed when she informed PHA that her kids tested high for lead.
“When they showed up to my house, they had a whole hazmat suit on ... and that’s when the real worry starts to kick in,” Miller said. “If you can’t come in here and breathe it, like we’ve been here breathing it, then I know that this got to be crazy, this got to be something serious. Because, why are you protected and we’re not?”
But guarding against lead costs landlords, For that reason, the current law can create a perverse incentive for discriminating against families with children. While landlords renting to families with kids have to pay for lead certifications and remediation, those who avoid having children in their units can also skip the extra financial burden.
Kaitlyn Kubiak was 8 months pregnant with her first son, Sterling, when her landlord told her she had to move out. Kubiak was sharing a house with her younger sister near the Frankford Transportation Center, in North Philadelphia.
“He told me specifically I had to leave because he does not rent out to people with children under the age of 5, due to possible lead poisoning in the building that he was fairly certain was there and he didn’t want to be held liable,” Kubiak told PlanPhilly.
Kubiak, who is 23 and unmarried, had no savings and no support to make the move. She was working from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. at Wawa, preparing physically and mentally for her new son, when suddenly she found herself in need of a new place to live. She was saved by her employer, who gave her $2,200.
“It was a very stressful time,” Kubiak said. “But I got through it, and I don’t want anyone else to have to go through that.”
Sterling is now 14 months, and free from lead.
In 2016, after realizing how little the lead-paint disclosure law had accomplished, Mayor Jim Kenney took the issue in hand and released a plan to increase enforcement of the law.
An advisory group including over 20 members from city and state agencies, tenant and landlord organizations, health providers, children’s advocates, and legal services look a deep look into what needed to be done to strengthen the regulation. The drive for a universal lead certification came out of that process.
HAPCO argues that the proposed requirement would add $3,000 in repairs to the cost of every housing unit. Landlords would pass the cost onto tenants, raising rents in a market already struggling with a shortage of affordable units. The increase could push tenants with less money into the unlicensed rental market, where they are even more vulnerable to hazards like lead.
Public Citizens for Children and Youth says HAPCO’s calculations are wrong.
PlanPhilly price-shopped for solutions, to see how much it would cost to check for lead in a two-bedroom apartment built before 1978. Out of 10 emails sent to lead-remediation services, six individuals or companies responded in a window of two weeks. Some offered lead inspections or risk assessments, others offered lead certificates or abatements. It wasn’t easy for a reporter to understand what was actually needed and in what order. Prices varied from $120 to $446 for a lead certificate, and from $400 to $960 for a lead-based paint inspection. That did not include the cost of fixing the problem.
In addition to those costs, a landlord could lose rental income.
“The landlords would probably lose a month of rent. Because you can't test until the prior tenant vacates. Then we would have to wait to get someone to do the test and then wait for the results,” Spear said.
Which is why a second recommendation of the lead advisory group is to increase funding for landlords to remediate properties if they show financial hardship. Councilwoman Reynolds Brown told PlanPhilly her office has explored that suggestion, but currently there’s nothing in the existing legislation addressing that issue.
Baltimore and Rochester, New York, reduced lead poisoning in children by about 90 percent legislation like the bill now under Council review. Reynolds Brown said that the law did not increase rents or put landlords out of business.
“If Rochester and Baltimore were able to figure out how to overcome the barriers, surely with smart leaders from all stakeholder groups, Philadelphia can do the same,” Reynolds Brown said in an email.
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