Alders gave the city’s beleaguered Health Department their blessing to apply for millions of dollars in federal lead-paint clean-up money, but vowed to ensure limited funds aren’t squandered on slumlords who don’t make repairs.
Their vote came after an hour-long aldermanic Human Services Committee hearing Tuesday night at City Hall about a $4.1 million grant application to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes.
Before voting to OK the request, which now goes to the full board for final approval, the alders on the Human Services Committee zeroed in their questioning on how the Health Department has spent past grants and how it planned to use this pool of funds.
How much cash will be made available to big poverty-property management companies, often cited for not maintaining their properties? the alders asked. How much will the city chip in to fund inspections and enforcement? And how well has the Health Department communicated about what’s already available and what it plans to do next?
Revelations Of Failure
As it applies for more money, the Health Department is battling several cases filed by New Haven Legal Assistance Association in state court. Legal aid claims that the agency has neglected its duties as children grew sicker.
Two judges have torn into the city for not doing its job in protecting children from lead poisoning. Threatening to hold the city in contempt, one said the Health Department needed to stop making excuses and find a way to carry out abatement orders. Another said he was “appalled” by the Health Department’s work, requiring outside verification because he didn’t trust the city after “deficiencies” in their past inspections.
Last year, 250 children in New Haven were poisoned with lead, 90 of them at elevated levels, the Health Department said. The cases currently in court have revealed among other things, that inspectors missed major violations in clearing properties and that the health department tries to keep track of cases with handwritten rather than computerized files.
The Centers for Disease Control say that no lead exposure is safe. Even at moderate levels (between 10 to 25 micrograms of lead per deciliter of a child’s blood), the neurotoxic metal can cause irreversible damage to intelligence and memory and can result in permanent hyperactivity disorders and learning disabilities.
200 Clean-Ups Promised
After hearing from officials, the aldermanic committee voted to recommend that the full Board of Alders approve the grant application to HUD.
The city has received federal funding for its lead abatement program six times since 1995, which Health Department officials say has allowed them to remove lead from 1,470 housing units. That represents just a small fraction of the potential hazards in a city where 47,730 units were built before 1978, the year lead paint was banned.
With the latest round of funding, Health Department officials said they hope to abate at least 200 housing units. The grant will allow them to offer $1.35 million in zero-interest, forgivable loans of up to $9,000 per unit, primarily in homes where a child has been poisoned. The grant will also provide $450,000 in forgivable loans for affordable housing non-profits to gut vacant, blighted buildings. Those loans will be available for three-and-a-half years, from November 2018 through April 2022.
“While we’ve done a lot of lead abatement to reduce the burden of child lead poisoning in this community, there’s a lot that still needs to be done,” said Health Department Director Byron Kennedy. “Being able to get this grant would allow us to continue the work.”
The rest of the grant, approximately $2.2 million, will go towards the Health Department’s other activities. That will fund community outreach, including $9,000 for brochures and $13,500 for a Lighthouse Park event each year; lead inspections, including $82,000 for one lead inspector’s pay each year; and administrative overhead, including $89,000 for a program manager’s pay each year. A $400,000 lump sum will go toward Yale-New Haven Hospital’s blood screening.
To get the federal money, the city has pledged to put up $1.11 million of its own funds — a 28 percent match — over the next three and a half years. That share primarily covers salaries and benefits for the division’s director, two lead inspectors, and a computer programming assistant.
Upper Westville Alder Darryl Brackeen, Jr., the committee chair, asked whether the city would eventually making its all housing stock lead-safe, but Health Department officials declined to set those milestones.
“We’ve been dealing with lead in America for a very long time. When are we going to eliminate the lead epidemic in the city? When are you guys going to work yourselves out of a job?” Brackeen asked. “Are there projections? What is the goal? I would love to say we’re the first lead-free city in New England. When is that going to happen?”
“You really can’t put a date on it,” said Paul Kowalski, the city’s environmental health director. “I’d like to say before I retire.”
After city officials left the chambers, Alder Evelyn Rodriguez called for the Health Department to submit a five-year plan with clear goals “to see that we are working and build the confidence of residents of this city.”
Subsidies For Slumlords?
Several alders asked how the Health Department would direct funds to those who needed it most. In particular, they wanted to know if real-estate companies that own thousands of rentals across the city, like Pike International or Mandy Management, qualified for loans.
Downtown Alder Abby Roth asked if the city checks to see if landlords could afford to pay for expenses out of pocket.
Kowalski said that the city doesn’t require any disclosures from the landlord about their income, unless it’s an owner-occupied unit. He said that’s because HUD only requires that money be spent on low-income tenants, whose income for a family of four totals less than about $65,000.
Roth suggested that he take a look at setting criteria for landlords’ eligibility. “It would seem like that would be a useful thing to do,” she said, “because maybe we’re spending precious grant money where a landlord could be paying.”
“I’m only following HUD guidelines and guidance,” Kowalski responded. He explained that he’d prioritize sending money where children had lead in their blood, regardless of the landlord’s ability to pay.
Richard Furlow, the board’s majority leader, picked up the line of questioning to ask if the city’s biggest for-profit property-managers would have access to these funds.
“We have some management companies that have a lot of properties, and it may be within their means to handle that abatement without receiving grant money. Some of these companies own so much property, and the concern would be that they get money on top of money on top of money.”
“That was well-said,” Kowalski responded. “That was very well-said.” He said that large management companies could tap into the funds, but historically they hadn’t applied for it.
When Furlow asked if they could put standards in place, Kennedy urged the city should wait to until the next grant cycle. He said that any last-minute revisions to the city’s policies could jeopardize the application, because the Health Department might not be able to hit the goals that it articulated to the federal government.
“HUD perceives, based on the policies in the State of Connecticut and in the City of New Haven, you have these number of units that’s in the universe that you could target. If there were a smaller universe by definition of different criteria which you would use, I would expect maybe that HUD and other funders would have wanted that to be articulated explicitly in the very beginning,” Kennedy said. “We could certainly think about that at the next opportunity.”
Asked after the hearing why the Health Department hadn’t proposed any new regulations before sending in the latest application, Kowalski said that isn’t his job. He said the alders could take up discussion of new policy.
Brackeen directed aldermanic staff to see if federal law would let them regulate how the lead-paint money is disbursed, in the same way that the chamber had control over how to spend Community Development Block Grants.
Abatements Or Arrests?
As Roth questioned whether the Health Department could “charge” landlords for the costs of a lead cleanup, Kowalski evaded giving a direct answer. But he did say there is another way his agency had been pursuing “charges”: in criminal court.
In several cases, the Health Department has sought to arrest landlords, even when they’re trying to comply with city orders. Attorneys for New Haven Legal Assistance Association have argued that’s a backwards way to force landlords to clean up their properties. The city code, legal aid lawyers say, already gives the Health Department all the power it needs to bring in abatement contractors itself and then send property-owners the bill.
Under New Haven’s lead paint ordinance, which Kowalski has said he helped revise in 1985, the health director is required to order abatement whenever a hazard is identified, especially if lead paint is found after a child is poisoned or if a property is so badly maintained that its paint is chipped, blistered or flaky.
If a landlord won’t comply, the ordinance allows the director to carry out the abatement and put a lien on the property for the total cost.
But in recent years, the department has been unwilling to use that authority.
Instead, the agency’s go-to response has been to ask the State’s Attorney’s Office to apply for arrest warrants, relying on a state law that makes disobeying municipal health orders a misdemeanor, punishable by up to three months in jail.
“Well, we do criminally prosecute property owners that do not comply with the enforcement letters that were issued to them,” Kowalski said. “This is an available option.”
After the hearing, he said that the Health Department refers 25 to 30 cases for enforcement every year. The goal, he said, is to get landlords to follow the law.
But prosecutors appear to have executed just a handful of these warrants. (The state’s attorney’s office said it rejected at least one application against a Whalley Avenue landlord without presenting it to a judge.)
Currently, there are six criminal cases for violations of this statute pending in New Haven’s Housing Court. Most of them are for unfinished repairs in owner-occupied units.
Three landlords who were charged with disobeying city orders reside in the same building as their tenants; another’s right next door. One out-of-towner lives in Durham. The only major property-holder who has been arraigned is Daniel Greer, a rabbi facing other criminal charges who controls six nonprofits that own 53 rental properties around the Edgewood neighborhood.
There’s no record of any convictions under the law in New Haven’s Housing Court, though at several criminal cases have been sealed from public view.
Kowalski did not respond to multiple follow-up emails about the small number of cases in New Haven Housing Court’s records.
Amy Marx, a staff attorney at New Haven Legal Assistance Association, said arresting landlords doesn’t solve the underlying problem of unsafe housing that’s poisoning kids.
“The fundamental and essential purpose of the law is the protection of the life and health of small children. The only thing that protects a child’s lifelong well-being is to have the lead hazard removed,” Marx said. “The child cannot afford to wait for possible criminal prosecution of a landlord, who, after the often long and drawn-out criminal process, may then choose to do abatement.”
In the cases she’s handled, Marx added, “nothing has protected the child until a judge ordered the city to take over the abatement.”
“Criminal prosecution is a punishment for not following the law’s required protection of children’s health, but it is not an effective mechanism to get work done when a landlord has already chosen to ignore the warning of punishment,” she said.
• Judge Threatens To Find City In Contempt
• Same Mandy House Cited Twice For Lead Paint
• Lead $ Search Advances
• 3 Landlords Hit With New Lead Orders
• Another Judge Rips City On Lead
• Judge To City: Get Moving On Lead
• Health Department Seeks Another $4.1M For Lead Abatement
• City-OK’d Lead Fixes Fail Independent Inspection
• Judge: City Dragged Feet On Lead
• 2nd Kid Poisoned After City Ordered Repairs
• Judge: City Must Pay
• City Sued Over Handling Of Lead Poisonings
• City’s Lead Inspection Goes On Trial
• Eviction Withdrawn On Technicality
• 2nd Child Poisoned; Where’s The City?
• Carpenter With Poisoned Kid Tries A Fix
• High Lead Levels Stall Eviction
• 460 Kids Poisoned By Lead In 2 Years
• Bid-Rigging Claimed In Lead Cleanup
• Judge Orders Total Lead Paint Clean-Up
• Legal Aid Takes City To Task On Lead