Benjamin Mejia left his carpentry job each day in a cloud of vapors, wood shavings and dust. His steel-toed boots tracked the worksite into his apartment. Soon, one of his boys tested positive for lead poisoning.
“All the time, I’m at old properties. When I come in, I bring in the dust sometimes,” Mejia said. “That’s what I think.”
A doctor who treated Mejia’s son alerted public health officials about the poisoning. Even though the boy might not have been poisoned at his home, the report triggered an inspection.
In February, city inspectors came out and found lead in the bedrooms and porch of his Shepard Street apartment in Newhallville. Rather than waiting for a contractor to clean it all up, Mejia took his expertise in rehabbing old houses and began abating the rental property himself.
He crowbarred out the windows and widened the door frames. He scraped the paint off the porch and repainted almost every bedroom. He wants to touch up a few remaining spots, but his 3-year-old son’s lead levels have dropped.
Mejia’s boy is one of the hundreds of children poisoned by lead every year in New Haven. Since 2013, the Health Department has opened 1,183 new lead poisoning cases, the Independent found by analyzing state and city records. Four-hundred-sixty children have been reported sick in the past two years.
Lead’s effects on a child are irreversible. Moderate lead levels (between 10 and 25 micrograms per deciliter of whole blood) may impair children’s cognitive abilities, decreasing memory, limiting speech and hearing, and risking learning disabilities and hyperactivity disorders. Even lower doses (between 5 to 10 micrograms per deciliter) might lower children’s IQ points.
In 2012, based on new research, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that no level of lead exposure is safe. The federal agency dropped the reference level for poisoning to 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood.
That change has led to consistently high caseloads for city inspectors and headaches for landlords around the city. In Amity, the city threatened to toss a Whalley Avenue landlord in jail for not keeping exterior paint intact. In West River, a family of six, with a poisoned infant, is withholding rent until their landlord cleans up a Sherman Avenue building. And in Fair Haven, the owner of several James Street apartments forked over $5,200 to have a neighborhood crew remediate the exteriors.
As soon as violation letters are issued, property owners might be on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars. But the city does make some funds available for abatement. Through a $3.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the city offers forgivable loans to abate pre-1978 housing. The loans, up to $10,000 per unit, come with no interest over their five-year term.
Mejia’s landlords on Shepard Street might have had to apply for one of those loans after they were hit with two potentially costly abatement orders earlier this year.
Instead, they worked out a deal with the tenant. Mejia’s construction work might have poisoned his son, but it prepped him to make his own home lead-safe. In exchange for a deep discount in rent, Mejia agreed to clean up the property.
The two-story home at 21 Shepard St. is owned by Richard Votto and Bryant Thomas, two Hamden business partners who began bidding on houses at auctions during the Great Recession’s wave of foreclosures. They bought 21 Shepard St. in 2012, paying $35,000 for a house that nearly tripled in value since, according to the city’s appraisal.
(The property owners did not comment for this article. Thomas said his partner is “handling” the abatement; Votto did not return calls on Friday and Monday.)
Mejia’s family of four, including his 8 year-old and 3 year-old boys, have been living in the house since mid-2015. This year they found out it had lead in its walls and soil.
In late February and late March, Votto and Thomas received notices from the city. After conducting two inspections, the Health Department ordered the landlords to abate the entire property.
Paul Kowalski, the city’s environmental health director, told them to fill in cracks in the walls, scrape off flaking paint, strip the doors and windows, and encapsulate other areas.
Mejia has completed most of the work; he’s still finishing up the porch area. He said he could have gotten it all done within three days, but working here and there for a couple hours, it has probably taken a month.
“I don’t keep nothing,” Mejia said, as he showed off the way he’d renovated his kids’ bedroom. “Everything, brand new.”
He said the city had helped him catch anything he’d missed. One inspector caught high lead levels in a closet shelf — the one board he’d left in place from the five he removed. “They found it,” he said. “That’s good.”
As he cleans up now, Mejia said, he’s much more careful about the dust he could be tracking in. When he comes home, he immediately takes a shower before ruffling his boys’ hair.