Many public housing residents are facing lead-related dangers in their homes, mostly from lead-based paint and pipes, but also in the surrounding soil and in the playgrounds where children play.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that 62,000 public housing units around the country need lead abatement. And, according to the National Housing Law Project, over 90,000 children in the Housing Choice Voucher (Section 8) program have lead poisoning and an additional 340,000 children living in federally subsidized housing are at risk.
New federal and state efforts are underway to tackle the problem. HUD recently awarded $27.8 million to 38 public housing agencies in 25 states to identify and reduce lead-based paint hazards in thousands of older public housing units. Last year, it awarded $18 million to public housing authorities. Meanwhile, state and federal legislation is pending to tighten requirements and boost funding for remediation.
Still, the problem remains daunting, particularly for housing stock on the East Coast, which tends to be much older, and therefore more likely to have lead paint on the premises, housing experts say. What’s more, eradicating lead is expensive and time-consuming.
The District of Columbia Housing Authority, which received a $1 million grant from HUD, estimates it will cost more than $3 million a year to clean up just one of its larger complexes. (The DCHA had to temporarily relocate families from one of its complexes to a hotel earlier this year because of lead.)
And the New York City Public Housing Authority, which is entangled in a controversy for its failure to remove lead and move hundreds of lead-poisoned kids from its units, estimates that it will cost $32 billion to make a variety of repairs, including eradicating the toxin. (NYCHA did not receive a grant this year.)
The HUD grants are “just barely a drop in the bucket for what needs to be done,” said Nancy Loeb, director of the Environmental Advocacy Center at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. “It’s really troubling that we have a pollutant that we know affects children for the rest of their lives and HUD is dragging their feet on this.”
Last month, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported to Congress that HUD isn’t doing enough to mitigate lead paint hazards in the more than 4 million low-income households living in federally subsidized housing. That includes public housing and private rentals using housing vouchers.
Another GAO report, released last year, found that HUD wasn’t providing enough guidance to jurisdictions awarded lead abatement grants. The report also found HUD needed to improve the way it documents and evaluates the effectiveness of lead abatement programs it funds through grants.
“HUD lacks comprehensive goals and performance measures for its lead reduction efforts,” the report found.
Meanwhile, a 2018 report by the HUD Inspector General’s office, the agency’s internal watchdog, found that HUD failed to ensure that the nation’s 3,300 public housing authorities properly identified and eliminated lead hazards, “thus increasing the potential of exposing children to lead poisoning due to unsafe living conditions.”
But HUD officials note that public housing, including federally subsidized private units, have a lower prevalence of lead-based paint than private housing. In addition to the money for public housing, HUD last month awarded another $319 million to 77 state and local government agencies to clean up lead-based paint and other health and safety hazards in privately owned low-income housing.
And HUD spends more on lead abatement than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which awarded $17 million in grants to prevent lead poisoning between 2000 and 2010 but nothing since.
“Yes, HUD could always do better. There’s no doubt about it,” said Doug Farquhar, program director for environmental health for the National Conference of State Legislatures. “But now when you look at the amount of [lead abatement] funding going to HUD homes versus the rest of the housing, it’s astronomically different.”
Still, public housing authorities say they’re scrambling to keep up with their rapidly aging housing stock.
“We do not have sufficient resources to ensure that our public housing is safe and healthy for residents,” said Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, a Washington, D.C.-based membership organization.
HUD officials declined Stateline requests for an interview. In a response to a March GAO report that found HUD needed to step up its lead inspection process, then-HUD Deputy Secretary Donald La Voy wrote, “After 20 years of extremely limited resources to upgrade the information systems supporting the inspection model, the process has become susceptible to manipulation and the Department needs to develop a new physical inspection process.”
In May, a bipartisan group of eight U.S. senators introduced legislation to require HUD to update its lead poisoning prevention measures to protect families living in federally subsidized housing.
And in November, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, introduced a proposal to earmark $180 billion over 10 years to make public housing safer. (Sanders also is running for the Democratic nomination for president.) Their proposal would require the HUD secretary to report on changes to the overall community health in public housing, from asthma rates to air quality to levels of lead and mold.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers this year introduced more than 240 bills targeting lead abatement from a variety of angles, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The New York and New Jersey bills are among the handful that focus on public housing.
Because HUD is responsible for overseeing federally subsidized housing, states typically focus their lead abatement efforts in other areas, Farquhar said.
Although the federal government banned lead-based paint in 1978, it persists in an estimated 38 million homes, lingering on old window frames and trim, and in dust. Public housing is particularly susceptible, because most of the buildings around the country date back decades, to the 1950s and beyond, Zaterman said.
Two decades ago, HUD issued a rule requiring public housing authorities to perform a risk assessment of their housing stock to identify lead hazards. They’re required to either remove the lead or control the problem on an interim basis, such as painting over the lead so it can’t chip until the lead can be fully abated, said Emily Coffey of the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, which represents HUD tenants who’ve been exposed to lead.
But Emily Benfer, director of the Health Justice Advocacy Clinic at Columbia Law School who studies health and housing issues, said there’s a lack of oversight to ensure that properties are complying — and there’s not enough money to repair the properties.
“This is becoming a public health crisis that will take a concerted effort,” Benfer said. “But the cornerstone of any intervention must be primary intervention, identifying hazards before individuals are exposed.”
HUD’s public housing stock is rapidly aging and deteriorating, and there’s a long backlog of urgently needed repairs: from basic infrastructure to mold and mildew and lead contamination. In 2010, HUD conservatively estimated the public housing capital needs backlog at almost $26 billion. Housing experts say that backlog continues to grow by billions every year.
The Public Housing Authorities Directors Association and the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities estimate that the public housing capital backlog has accrued to $50 billion to $70 billion today.
“With the backlog and the deferred maintenance, we can never catch up,” said Norma Clarke, modernization administrator for the Los Angeles County Development Authority, the county’s public housing agency.
Meanwhile, the maximum HUD lead abatement grant is $1 million for a housing authority. The grants are awarded competitively, and come from HUD’s capital fund appropriations.
“Lead is a very expensive problem,” said Jim Armstrong, policy analyst for the association of housing authority directors, which is based in Washington, D.C. “And that problem exists in a whole universe of other expensive problems. I just don’t know what people expect public housing authorities to do.”
The Los Angeles County Development Authority received a $1 million grant from HUD this year. Officials plan to use the money to rehab units in its Carmelitos Public Housing Community in North Long Beach, composed of 713 homes for approximately 1,800 people. The units are primarily family-occupied, built in the 1930s and 1940s, according to Clarke.
Will the $1 million grant be enough?
“No,” Clarke said. She said it will cost about $10,000 to remove lead from a single unit, which means they’ll only be able to fix 100 units. So, the authority is prioritizing testing and repairs for families with children under 6 years old.
The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority faces a different challenge. It received a $1 million grant from HUD last year and used the money to repair the public housing authority’s single-family homes, which are scattered throughout the city, rather than its high-rises, which tests showed had little to no risk of lead.
But as it turns out, they only needed half the money.
“We do need to return any unused portion of the grant to HUD,” said Jeff Horwich, director of policy and external affairs for the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority. “Regrettably, of course, since we have many other urgent capital needs that are underfunded by Congress.”
HUD’s lead-safe housing rule, which applies to all federally subsidized housing, requires that public housing adhere to federal regulations regarding the testing and abatement of lead paint. But paint is just one source of lead. It also can accumulate in soil from gasoline runoff and industrial sources. And the grants cannot be used for abating lead in pipes or service lines.
It’s not enough to provide a one-time award to reduce lead-based paint hazards, Benfer said. There needs to be more oversight and capital funding to address infrastructure problems, she said.
Most public housing units were built more than 50 years ago, and many have infrastructure problems with plumbing and heating, Benfer said.
“When faced with a roof that’s caving in and pipes that are flooding a building versus chipping paint, you’re going to try to save the sinking ship first,” Benfer said.
Infrastructure woes further contribute to lead-based hazards, Benfer said. Leaks, mildew and moisture cause paint to chip, which increases lead-based hazards.
“If you’re not addressing the other issues, the problem has only been temporarily solved,” Benfer said. “And it’s going to come back.”