Despite two city-ordered series of repairs, a child is still living at a west side apartment with lead-paint poisoning — the latest chapter in a decade-long saga that’s now the subject of a demand letter and an upcoming suit by legal aid lawyers questioning how effectively the city regulates hazards in renters’ homes.
On Tuesday, the director of New Haven’s Health Department mailed the landlord a letter demanding lead abatement at the apartment 1321 Whalley Ave., a two-story building tucked behind a Burger King in the Amity neighborhood. An inspector had spotted flaking lead paint on the apartment’s yellow clapboard exterior and chipped lead paint on the interior door frames, window sills and baseboards.
An inspector from the Livable City Initiative (LCI), the city government agency charged with enforcing the rest of the housing code, toured the apartment the same day, pointing out problems that the landlord still needed to repair after repeated visits, like a wobbly toilet atop rotting wood and concrete dust under the kitchen sink. But the inspector noted new smoke detectors, a tighter fitting on a leaky pipe and freshly-mowed grass.
The spate of enforcement actions came in response to a demand letter sent to the city last Wednesday by two New Haven Legal Assistance Association attorneys. The letter, which documented “urgent fire, health, and safety concerns,” like toxic lead paint that’s poisoned two kids, said the situation fits a “pattern of failure” by the city to stay on top of code violations.
To resolve the matter, the two legal aid attorneys, Amy Marx and Shelley White, demanded in the letter sent that the city immediately eliminate the lead-paint hazards in the unit, temporarily relocate the family to a hotel and schedule a sit-down meeting to discuss “much needed systemic reform” to New Haven’s code enforcement.
Marx said she hasn’t received a substantive reply. “We’ve heard nothing to reassure us that the family is safe and the city is doing its job,” she said. “We’re running out of constructive options other than suing the city.”
A family of five has lived at 1321 Whalley Ave., in a two-bedroom unit on the second floor, since 2006. The family pays about $900 monthly in rent. The parents, Walter Guaman, 41, and Gloria Montero, 39, expressed concern that the unit’s numerous code violations have put their three boys in significant danger — above all, from the flaking lead paint, which the couple believes severely stunted two of their kids’ development, rendering them nonverbal.
On multiple occasions over the years, they’ve complained to their landlord and to the city about their apartment’s rundown condition.
The Health Department said it is monitoring the situation.
“It’s very, very difficult,” Guaman said. “My two kids are very sick. Nothing is okay.”
Jong Hee Heo, the landlord, said he just wants the tenants gone. A Korean immigrant who commutes to New Haven daily from New York City, Heo also runs Blue Sky Nails, where Montero rents a $1,900 monthly work spot.
“This house has a lead-paint problem,” Heo said. “I told them, ‘Please move out.’”
After repeated remediations that the Health Department approved, the Guamans’ 5-year-old son Jacob Monday tested at dangerously high lead levels.
The Health Department first became aware of lead paint at the Whalley Avenue apartment in April 2008. Using an X-ray, inspector Jomika Bogan documented over 100 spots in the unit with toxic levels, in a report included as an attachment to the legal aid demand letter.
In December 2008, paid for by a $24,000 deferred loan through a federal Department Housing & Urban Development (HUD)-funded city program, the landlord neutralized the lead paint by coating it with a liquid encapsulant — a temporary abatement that the Health Department certified with a release.
Heo was told to monitor all the areas that had been treated, as part of official management plan.
But that fix eventually gave way, with normal wear on the door frames, chipped window sills and cracks in the walls from the boys’ sometimes rambunctious playing.
In late 2014, worried about their toddler’s inability to speak, the Guamans took their youngest son, Jacob, to receive lead testing at Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital. His blood work came back at twice the medical community’s accepted level of concern. Six months later, in May 2015, another test revealed concentrations of the toxic metal at 36 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood — over seven times the reference level set by the Centers for Disease Control.
According to state law, the poisoning is supposed to trigger a response from the Health Department.
In June 2015, Bogan returned to the property to wipe for lead dust. In the living room window well, she found lead at 1,270 micrograms per square foot, three times higher than what’s considered hazardous. A bedroom’s window well also flunked her test.
But rather than drafting a new order letter, the department reissued the results of its 2008 inspection in January 2016.
“That was just for obsessive-compulsiveness, to put the original 2008 inspection on the file, on the public record,” Paul Kowalski, the department’s environmental health program director, explained in a phone interview. “The owner’s attorney at that time wanted a copy of a release.”
Citing federal rules safeguarding medical privacy, Kowalski declined to explain the Health Department’s response in further detail.
Around that time (neither Guaman nor Heo remembers exactly when), the landlord attempted to treat the lead paint a second time. Heo said he hired America One Abatement, a company certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to complete renovations involving lead paint, for the gig. (The company did not respond to several phone messages.) Guaman disputed that account, claiming a crew of non-professionals sanded white paint off the doors, then vacuumed the chips from the carpet.
Improper renovations, even if they’re well-intended, can actually exacerbate the problem, cautioned Jerry Paulson, an environmental health expert who teaches at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. He called the process Guaman described “unsafe, inappropriate and contrary to HUD and EPA guidelines.”
“If it’s a carpeted floor with no hard, smooth surface, then that can mean there’s no guarantee of getting the lead out. And a vacuum, unless it’s a HEPA vacuum,” with a filter for capturing minuscule airborne particles, “is never safe, because the dust just gets through the filter of a regular vacuum and is spewed out the exhaust port. It just spreads; it’s more dispersed than it otherwise would be,” Paulson explained. “The children need to be removed. This place needs to be de-leaded by a certified lead-paint removal contractor. It needs to have clearance by a dust wipe” — a test in which dust from a square foot is collected on a damp cloth and analyzed for lead — “then the kids can move back in.”
A dust wipe, analyzed in January 2016 after Heo’s renovations, came back negative on the two window wells. The floors, however, weren’t tested.
Jacob’s blood lead levels stayed at a slightly elevated level, wavering from eight micrograms per deciliter in August 2016 down to six in April 2017 — both still over physicians’ reference level.
Recently, though, they’ve spiked again. A test on Monday found they’d shot up to 17 micrograms per deciliter, three times above the amount that’s supposed to set off alarms.
Jacob, about to turn 5 years old, and his brother David, age 7, have both been diagnosed with autism. That’s probably not attributable to the lead paint, but their symptoms might be worse because of the exposure, Paulson explained. “Brain damage that can be caused by lead will make any preexisting neuropsychological problems more difficult to deal with,” he said.
Because children with autism may continue hand-to-mouth behaviors that others leave behind at an early age, they may continue to ingest lead chips and further impair their development, added Carl Baum, a professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine at Yale School of Medicine. “Kids will explore by touching things in their immediate environment. They also have a tendency to put their hands in their mouths, to taste things and comfort themselves by sucking their thumb,” he explained. “That creates a perfect storm where they’re very susceptible and most likely to get into lead.”
Last week, the Health Department’s inspectors revisited the property to investigate, Kowalski said. This week he sent the landlord a letter inviting him to apply for another loan for to make the property lead-safe — a third attempt at abatement.
“Lead is a very serious health and environmental hazard and potential liability for property owners,” Kowlaski wrote to Heo. “The orders issued to you by this Department obligate you to abate your property of this hazard. We hope you will take advantage of this unique opportunity for financial assistance.”
Heo said he cried the first time he got a letter from the city about the property and bummed a cigarette from one of his clients at the salon. “I got so scared,” he said. After repeated visits by inspectors, he’s used to following their demands, but he said it’s been costly. He estimated he spent $6,000 on LCI-mandated repairs last year.
“[The tenants] use LCI whenever they have a problem [with me]. LCI gives me such a hard time. If they say anything, I have to follow everything,” Heo said. “That, I don’t like, because the house is not perfect, but it’s not also such a garbage thing. If [the tenants] want a very nice house, they gotta pay more rent and live there.”
Heo also said that he had a complicated relationship with the tenants, as Montero’s one-time boss at the salon and provider of a $10,000 loan for Guaman’s truck — making some city officials wary of getting into the middle of a private spat.
Guaman’s legal aid lawyer said those arguments were irrelevant. “It’s outrageous to even begin to discuss business dealings — positive or negative — as an excuse for why the city and the landlord did not protect the children’s health, as required by law,” Marx said.
Screening Houses or Kids?
According to the emerging consensus in the medical community, New Haven is addressing the problem too late. With mounting evidence of lead paint’s effects on early childhood development, experts argue that local governments should be proactively checking spaces for lead, particularly schools, childcare centers and residential units where children live.
“We don’t want to treat children as biological monitors themselves,” Baum said.
But Kowalski questioned the feasibility of such an effort.
“How are we supposed to find out where children live?” he asked.
Instead, he said that the Health Department has focused its efforts on providing free lead-paint screenings to parents who requests one. (Anyone can do so by calling 203-946-8174.) He pointed out that the agency has abated over 1,500 houses and tested many more. (Click here to read about Kowalski’s community-outreach efforts.)
Ruth Ann Norton, the CEO of the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative, referenced Baltimore as an example for New Haven to follow. The city that has dramatically reduced lead poisoning by requiring landlords to hire a certified, third-party inspector to test for lead in between any vacancy. “You don’t do it just where the children are, because kids can go into anybody’s unit,” she explained. “We do it for everyone in Maryland built before 1978, every time there’s a turnover. And it has not proven to be a business barrier.”
Norton emphasized that the program works only because of strict enforcement. “Everyone’s better off stepping up and doing the enforcement,” she said. “There’s no cure for lead poisoning except for prevention. It’s irreversible, and by failing to do proper enforcement, you’re dooming a child to a pathway that has less opportunity.
Paulson echoed that a proactive approach to testing is necessary.
“They should be screening houses and not screening children,” the professor said. “You want to identify places that put kids at risk and repair them before you have an exposed child. Once they’ve been exposed, if damage occurs, there’s no treatment. You can get the lead out for the next kids that come along. But if a child’s been injured, the injury is there and there’s no reversing it.”
Montero found that out the hard way. After her son Jacob’s blood went off the charts at 36 micrograms of lead per deciliter, she told doctors, “He needs some medicine.” They told the mom there wasn’t one for his case; instead, they suggested an iron-rich diet of meat and greens. She can’t convince him to eat many vegetables, so she has settled on feeding him two iron tablets a day.
The Guamans have long wanted to leave the Whalley Avenue apartment, but they’ve been unable to get the money together for a move, they said.
Guaman said his boys require near-constant supervision, so he’s had to cut back to working three days a week. When he’s at his trucking job and his wife’s at the nail salon, they pay a babysitter $13 an hour to watch them, but recently she’s been complaining that they’re too much of a handful, due to their autism.
“We want to move,” Montero said. “We want to find a house. We don’t want to go far, because I work here.”
So far, they haven’t found a viable option. There’s not many listings in Westville, Montero explained, and those on the market are out of their price range.