Buffalo News: "Groups urge Buffalo to test more units for lead paint, enforce rental inspection law"

Date: February 13, 2024

Deidre Williams | February 13, 2024

A group of 39 community organizations appealed to the City of Buffalo to inspect far more rental properties for toxic lead paint, as required by its own Proactive Rental Inspections local law.

Since at least the early 1990s, Buffalo has ranked among the nation’s worst cities for childhood lead poisoning – a function of its aging housing stock and other factors.

The Erie County Health Department designated nine ZIP codes in the city as communities of concern because of elevated childhood lead poisoning.

“In our city, children who live in predominantly neighborhoods of color are 12 times more likely to experience lead poisoning than children in predominantly white neighborhoods,” Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, executive director of think tank Partnership for the Public Good, said during a news conference Tuesday in Niagara Square in front of City Hall.

“Unless the city takes these prevention measures required by PRI legislation seriously, the rates of childhood lead poisoning will not decrease from their current levels,” Ó Súilleabháin said.

Since 2021 when the Proactive Rental Inspections program was implemented, Buffalo has completed 4,765 inspections out of 36,000 units covered under the legislation, and 415 certificates of compliance have been issued, said Catherine Amdur, the city’s commissioner of permit and inspection services. This year, city inspectors have completed 140 PRI inspections and issued 46 certificates.
“It’s a big undertaking. We’re doing what we can to achieve the goal,” Amdur said. “It takes time to roll out a new program and see what does and doesn’t work.”

The community organizations delivered a letter Tuesday to Mayor Byron W. Brown and Amdur, demanding documentation within 30 days to show the city is fully complying with the rental inspections required by the PRI legislation.
Breana Hargrave, a program coordinator at LEAD 716, was exposed to lead in 1998 and now works with families that battle the same difficulties her family battled 26 years ago. Compliance with the PRI law is very important, she said.

“Some of the challenges these children face are social, emotional issues, lower IQ scores, speech and hearing difficulties, ADHD and behavioral problems,” Hargrave said. “Unfortunately, the number of kids affected by lead continues to rise.”

“Lead exposure in adolescents creates disastrous irreversible effects on growth and development. This includes damage to the brain and nervous system, learning and behavioral disabilities and delays, hearing and speech problems, memory loss and hyperactivity,” said the Rev. George F. Nicholas, chief executive officer of Buffalo Center for Health Equity.
City officials say they are doing the best they can.
“It’s something we’re continuing to actively work on and continuing to work every day at this,” Amdur said.

Approximately 60% of Buffalo residents live in rental housing. Every year, more than 200 children are lead poisoned in Buffalo, the vast majority of whom live in rental units covered under PRI, the group’s letter said, citing state Department of Health data.

Lead paint can cause serious and irreparable damage to developing children, specifically when it begins to deteriorate through chipping and peeling, creating dust and chips that children may inhale or eat.

“Unless effective primary prevention measures in rental housing are taken by the City of Buffalo, as contemplated by the Proactive Rental Inspections law, rates of childhood lead-poisoning will not substantially decrease from the present unacceptable levels,” the letter said.

Ó Súilleabháin pointed to similar legislation in Rochester that has been in effect for more than a decade and has “significantly reduced” lead poisoning in Rochester.

“We know that legislation like PRI works. That’s a similar city, similar rates of poverty, similar housing stock. This is a proven tool,” Ó Súilleabháin said.
City officials said the Covid-19 pandemic and costs associated with the rental inspection program have hindered Buffalo’s progress.

The Buffalo Common Council created the Proactive Rental Inspection program in November 2020. One of the stated purposes of the local law is the “complete remediation of lead-based paint hazards,” according to the letter from the group.

The legislation sends inspectors into all non-owner-occupied one- and two-family rental units. Properties that pose the greatest chance of causing lead poisoning in children are prioritized. Once the residences are approved, they issue a Certificate of Rental Compliance, which must be renewed every three years. Inspectors check for lead paint, infestation, safe exits, smoke detectors, carbon dioxide detectors, leaking pipes and more.
Months after the program was established, inspections were suspended due to Covid-19.

Still, about a half dozen inspectors and a couple of supervisors did outreach in the community during the pandemic, knocking on doors, talking to residents about the dangers related to lead and leaving them with cleaning supplies and informational brochures, Amdur said.
The PRI program would cost the city almost $2 million a year to meet the defined goal, Amdur said.

The city’s PRI program is now funded with federal American Rescue Plan money, about $1 million total over three years, she told The Buffalo News. The PRI inspections are performed at no cost to the owner.

In May 2021, Buffalo was granted $331 million in ARP funding. The city has used $30 million of its ARP money for revenue replacement to offset budget shortfalls and costs incurred by the city in the current 2023-24 fiscal year. Another $20 million will be used in fiscal year 2024-25 for that purpose.
In February 2023, the Council created the Affordable Housing Task Force. The group unveiled a report in November with recommendations that include higher penalties for violating Buffalo’s Fair Housing Law, requiring more transparency about limited liability companies that own rental properties, conducting a vacancy study next year and fully funding a proactive rental inspections program.

For that, Council members should work with the city’s commissioner of permits and inspections to determine how many additional building inspectors would be needed to complete 6,000 PRI inspections per year, the report said. Council members then should prioritize the funding in the 2024-2025 city budget and beyond.

Buffalo is only one piece of the puzzle. Erie County is the funded agency tasked with addressing lead hazards, Amdur said.

Erie County’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention program, which receives about $2 million in federal and New York State funds, is responsible for the case management of lead poisoned children in Erie County. The purpose of the program is to identify children under 6 years old with elevated blood lead levels, ensure medical follow-up and eliminate the source of lead exposure. The program also identifies and addresses lead hazards in high-risk ZIP codes in Erie County to prevent at-risk children from becoming poisoned by lead.

“It’s important to note that the Erie County Department of Health has the mandate from New York State to address lead hazards, not the City of Buffalo,” Admur said. “New York State Department of Health gives Erie County millions of dollars, including $1.4 million this year, to inspect housing for lead paint hazards and cite owners. The city does not receive any of this funding.”

The federal government also provided about $212,580 to Erie County’s childhood lead poisoning prevention program.

“One way we can help is to inspect housing for community organizations, before they place vulnerable individuals into unsafe housing,” Amdur said. “We’re also fortunate to have so many caring advocates in our city and they can help guide mission-based organizations to take advantage of all the wonderful programs that build new affordable housing in the city. We see many of our faith-based organizations already doing it. That’s what it would look like to work together and find real solutions.”

Read the Buffalo News article on their website, here. You can also watch a video clip from the Buffalo News of the press conference, here.