A second child at a West River home has tested as having elevated blood lead levels just two weeks after his downstairs neighbors received a temporary stay on their eviction because of lead paint levels found throughout an apartment — a problem for which both sides ultimately blame the city’s health department.
On Monday afternoon Amy Marx, an attorney at the New Haven Legal Assistance Association (NHLAA), sent a letter to city Environmental Health Program Director Paul Kowalski announcing that her 2-year-old client Elijah Hall has a blood lead level of seven micrograms per deciliter (mg/dL), which is two units higher than what city, state and federal agencies deem “elevated,” and therefore demanding public health intervention.
Hall lives with his 36-year-old mother, Jennifer Williams, in the upstairs apartment at 75 Sherman Ave., a two-and-a-half story home between Gilbert Avenue and Scranton Street.
The ground floor apartment of that very house is currently at the center of a separate ongoing legal battle in state housing court on Elm Street. In that case, tenants Maajid Muhammad and Raihana Akhdar are countering landlord Abdullah Soliman’s bid to evict them for nonpayment of rent by claiming that landlord and city officials alike failed to protect their own 1-year-old child, Malik, from dangerous exposure to lead in the apartment. Malik has a blood lead level of 11 mg/dL.
Marx, who represents both the upstairs and the downstairs tenants at 75 Sherman Ave., called the two separate family’s encounters with child lead poisoning at the same home as evidence of a legal and epidemiological dereliction of duty on behalf of both the landlord and the city’s Health Department.
“The government has an obligation to provide a safety net when a landlord does not or cannot protect tenants,” she said after reviewing the conditions of the ground floor apartment. She said the mayor and the director of health must act to protect the health of children in this city who are exposed to lead.
Soliman, a 35-year-old software engineer who lives in New York City and owns two homes in New Haven, portrayed both tenants’ concerns and the subsequent abatement required to address them as evidence of the steep legal and financial burdens felt most keenly by small, part-time landlords who rely on city officials to keep them aware of and on top hazards in their homes that are sometimes difficult to spot.
“There was no point where anyone said, ‘You’ve got to get this tested; this is something that’s important,’” he said about his own path to learning about the hazards of lead in the Sherman Avenue building he owned. “Us amateurs, we’re in the dark about this.”
Kowalski declined to comment for this article, stating that the Health Department by policy does not comment on ongoing investigations. When asked what qualifies as adequate lead abatement by city standards, Kowalski replied, “You should read the ordinance.”
Sec. 16-65 (a) of the New Haven Code of Ordinances states that, when the director of public health determines that lead paint in a dwelling unit poses a hazard to child occupants, the lead paint “shall be completely removed from any surface which can be accessible to children. Cracked, chipped, blistered or peeling paint shall be completely removed. The lead paint ordered to be removed to the base surface shall be removed under such safety conditions as may be approved by the department or otherwise repaired as the department requires. In lieu of removal of lead paint, the accessible surface shall be covered with an approved durable material. Repainting a surface with a nonleaded paint without the complete removal of the existing lead paint shall not be deemed to be satisfactory compliance with this section.”
The ordinance does not specifically prescribe which lead abatement methods are allowed and prohibited, though it does say give the director of public health discretion in approving said methods. “Tenants are to be informed of the increased danger to children that may occur during the removal of lead paint,” the ordinance continues, “and are to be advised to exclude the children from the site for the duration of the work, and until dust and debris have been cleaned completely from all surfaces.”
Since 2013, the city’s Health Department has opened 1,183 new lead poisoning cases, state and city records analyzed by the Independent. Four-hundred-sixty children have been reported sick in the past two years.
Lead’s effects on children are irreversible, and even moderate levels of exposure (e.g. 10-25 mg/dL) can result in long-term impacts on IQ and memory and can result in permanent hyperactivity disorders and learning disabilities.
The federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) lowered the “reference level” for children with “elevated” blood lead levels from 10 mg/dL to 5 mg/dL in 2012. “These children are exposed to more lead than most children,” the CDC’s website reads.
Elijah’s and Malik’s stories represent two new cases in the city’s ongoing saga with lead.
“My Son Is What Matters”
Marx’s letter to Kowalski requests an “immediate epidemiological inspection of the interior, exterior, and soil at 75 Sherman Ave., Apt. 2,” which is where Elijah, Williams, Williams’s mother, and Williams’s ex-boyfriend have lived for the past year and a half. The four of them rent the six rooms on the top two floors of the building for $2,000 per month.
According to Marx’s letter, Williams took Elijah to get a blood test in December 2017. The test revealed that he had a blood lead level of 6 mg/dL.
Six “exceeds the limits set forth in New Haven City Code,” Marx wrote, “and places affirmative obligations on the Health Department to take actions to inspect and ensure abatement of the unit.” She wrote that state law requires a lead inspection of the apartment within five working days after the city’s Health Department is notified by the lab that took the blood test.
Marx and Williams say that that state and city-mandated lead inspection never took place.
“I called [Soliman] that day,” Williams said, remembering when she got her son’s blood test results on Dec. 26, 2017. “He said he was going to order a lead-blocking paint. That never happened.”
When asked about his response to Williams’s concerns about her son’s blood lead levels back in December, Soliman said that he simply did not know what the appropriate follow-up was.
“I didn’t know what a ‘six’ meant,” he said. “There’s a learning curve here. I don’t know what the levels mean. I’m just learning this now.”
He said he poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into building renovations after buying the property in 2013. He also said that he toured the unit with Williams when she was still looking to rent the apartment back in December 2016 as well as after she let him know about her son’s elevated blood lead levels in December 2017.
In both instances, he said, they found no peeling paint.
“So how could it be this apartment?” he said he remembered thinking. “I think it’s only now that I’ve been learning about this. I’m coming to the understanding that you need to be more offensive; it’s not just about looking for peeling paint and not seeing peeling paint. The paint was intact. My thing was, I was doubtful that it could be this unit” that was responsible for the lead in Elijah’s blood.
Both Williams and Soliman said they heard nothing from the city in the weeks and months following Elijah’s blood test.
Until the first week of May, that is, which is when Marx’s letter notes that Elijah was tested again for lead poisoning. This time, his blood lead level was listed at seven mg/dL: one unit higher than six months ago.
“We believe that the Health Department is already aware of the retesting of the child,” Marx wrote to Kowalski. “Again, this elevated blood lead level imposes duties on the Health Department to conduct an inspection and ensure abatement.”
“I would prefer to stay here,” Williams, a Georgia native, said about their Sherman Avenue home. “This is a nice area to live in. I just want the lead problem fixed. I don’t want there to be any permanent dangers to my son.”
“My son is what matters most to me,” she continued. “I don’t really believe that there are bad people. I believe people do bad things.”
Another Continuance At Court
In the third-floor housing court at the Connecticut Superior Court building at 121 Elm St. last Thursday, housing court Judge Anthony Avallone checked in on the latest developments in the legal action between Soliman and Williams’ downstairs neighbors at 75 Sherman Ave.: Muhammad, Akhdar, and their four young children.
The week before, Avallone had continued the case, in which Soliman is trying to evict Muhammad and Akhdar for nonpayment of rent in their $1,200 / month three-bedroom apartment. He cited an April 10 city lead inspection report that found high concentrations of lead paint throughout the walls, window sills, and door frames of nearly every room in the apartment.
Soliman and Muhammad had both represented themselves in court the week before. Thursday saw that both sides had lawyered up, with Marx representing the tenants and Ori Spiegel of New Haven’s Lawrence Levinson Law Office representing the landlord.
Spiegel said his client had been responsible in putting the family up at the New Haven Village Suites in Long Wharf for the week at his own expense. He said his client was on the cusp of engaging a contractor to do the lead abatement work in the ground floor unit, but that the tenants had been uncooperative and the contractor had fled the assignment.
Marx countered that the tenants were perfectly willing to cooperate with the landlord’s choice of a certified lead abatement contractor. She said they had not been given a requisite five-day heads up as to the arrival of the contractor, that they were packing up their belongings as quickly as they could, and that they simply wanted to know who the contractor was and how long he would be there before they let a stranger into their home.
“Unfortunately, I’m a better fortune teller than I thought,” Avallone said. He said he knew that coordination between the landlord, tenants, city and contractor was not going to be easy as the two parties had promised the week before. “There’s clearly disagreement, and not 100 percent trust between these the two parties.”
He ordered that Spiegel and Soliman give the tenants at least a 24-hour-notice before they send a contractor to their apartment, and he continued the case to this coming Thursday.
He said that the whole case, and his subsequent ruling, will boil down to one critical factor: the safety and habitability of the apartment in February 2018, when Muhammad stopped paying rent.
“Ignorance Is No Excuse”
At 75 Sherman Ave. last Thursday, Akhdar and her four children waited in their minivan in the driveway as Marx took a look at the conditions of the apartment.
“I’m just ready for this to be over and for us to move on,” Akhdar said with a weary smile. “It’s a lot.”
Inside the apartment, Marx went room to room, inspecting and photographing the different hot spots that Glenda Buenaventura had identified in her April 10 inspection as particularly dense with lead.
“I was very upset by what I saw at the apartment,” Marx said after she left. “The landlord made statements in the newspaper that everything was fully renovated, and that there should not be lead hazards in the unit. With even a quick visit to the apartment, it was totally clear that the apartment appears to be filled with lead hazards. There is flaking and chipping paint throughout the interior and exterior of the unit.”
She pointed out that window sills and door jambs in most rooms, including the children’s bedroom, had evidence of chipped and flaking paint. She noted that chips of paint also lay in the corner of some rooms, including the hallway that connects the stairwell to the front door.
“These chunks of paint are exactly the danger that children must be protected from ingesting,” she said. “Exposure to the dust is problematic alone, but ingesting just one chunk of this paint could have lifelong consequences for a child.”
Soliman said that the unit was in pristine shape as far as he knew, and that he would be shocked to hear that that there was significant damage to any of the areas of the apartment that Buenaventura had identified as heaviest with lead.
“When I handed over the unit” to Muhammad and Akhdar, he said, “I handed over a unit that I thought was and that the pictures will say was freshly painted. Everything was fully intact. Having the Health Department come in and detect lead in the apartment is hardly a case for saying the unit is uninhabitable because literally every single house in New Haven will test positively.”
According to newhavenlead.com, only 1,114 apartments have been certified by the city as lead-safe. The total number of rental apartments in the city is 33,176, according to the site; those apartments have a median year of construction of 1955. The federal government did not ban the inclusion of lead in house paint until 1978, meaning that the city likely has tens of thousands of pre-1978 apartments that contain lead paint that have not been fully abated according to city standards.
Marx expressed skepticism that the Health Department’s inspection and subsequent order to abate stated the paint in Muhammad’s apartment had lead, but that that paint was intact.
“Of course it says there is unintact paint,” Marx wrote to the Independent about the report. The Health Department “does not issue orders re intact paint.”
“Ignorance is no excuse,” she said, “especially when it comes to lead. When you take on the huge responsibility of becoming a landlord, you know to know the laws.”
Soliman said he signed a deal with a lead abatement contractor as of Monday, and that contractor should begin work on Muhammad’s ground floor unit as soon as possible. “We’re trying to be very aggressive and ambitious to get this done as soon as possible,” he said. “We’re limited by how quickly and efficiently the contractor can work.”
He estimated the lead abatement work for the ground floor unit will cost him around $10,000. He said he did not wind up applying for federal or municipal subsidies for the work because of the time crunch he felt to get the work done. He also said that he will hire the contractor to work on Williams’s upstairs unit after he finishes with Muhammad’s ground floor unit.
“Between getting an attorney and putting the tenant up in the hotel and doing this out of pocket has been a huge financial burden for me,” he said. “People think that because you own a property, you’re wealthy. This is a huge financial burden for me and my family.”
City At Fault?
In the cases of both the upstairs and the downstairs tenants of 75 Sherman Ave., Marx stressed that her concern is not just with the landlord’s abatement efforts, but with what she sees as a laggardly and negligent response time from the city’s Health Department.
In both cases, she noted, children tested for high blood lead levels at the end of 2017. In both cases, the city has taken months to take action.
“The medical records show that [Malik] had an extremely elevated lead level in November,” Marx said. She said that, after the hospital lab reported the blood results to the city, “at that point the city had serious obligations under both state law and city law to protect this child. It appears inexcusable that there was no inspection in this case until April, and that the child was not removed from the premises until a court order. Exposing the child to this amount of lead for five months can indeed have caused brain damage for this person.”
“The city once again appears to have totally dropped the ball with this child’s lifelong health on the line,” she continued.
In her Monday letter to Kowalski, Marx wrote that she saw similar ineffectiveness in the city’s lack of response to the high blood lead levels in Elijah.
“We find the lack of inspection of Elijah’s unit particularly troubling given the Health Department should have reached out to Elijah’s family,” she wrote, “to take proactive steps to protect him from lead poisoning, given that there was a child in the first floor unit with an elevated blood lead level.”
“The Health Department has an obligation under city law to notify all the other residents of the premises (defined as the entire building or structure),” she continued, “that a lead poisoning hazard was detected within the premises and inform all the children within the premises to be tested for lead poisoning. … We look forward to hearing from you with the date and time of the scheduled inspection.”
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