District officials failed to spend $3 million in federal lead remediation grants, rendering the city ineligible for additional money and forcing D.C. to shut down a program to protect poor children from lead poisoning.
City officials blamed the federal government for imposing too many restrictions on how they could spend the money, including requirements that apartments be occupied by children under the age of six.
But dozens of cities received lead remediation grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development without similar issues, and federal officials say the District is among the few that became ineligible because of poor performance.
The mismanagement of lead remediation dollars, first reported by the Washington City Paper, was a focus of D.C. Council members at an oversight hearing Friday.
“I can’t express enough my disappointment that this didn’t work,” Polly Donaldson, the director of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, said in an interview. “What we want to do is implement a program that works and have the ability then to look at future opportunities to continue to serve residents with their lead paint hazards.”
Caught in the middle of the bureaucratic squabble, advocates say, are children in the nation’s capital who are living in old buildings and risk lead poisoning.
“There’s no shortage of need here for remediation money, and the fact they don’t have it is a tragedy,” said Anne Cunningham, an attorney with the Children’s Law Center who has been closely tracking the issue. “We’ve seen hundreds of kids who are being poisoned in their homes every year. The consequences on both an individual and family level, as well as societally, are profound.”
Lead is a neurotoxin that has been linked to diminished cognitive function, among other symptoms. It commonly ends up in children’s bloodstreams when they swallow lead paint flakes or breathe in lead-tainted dust in homes built before 1978, when the federal government banned lead from household paint.
The District has a variety of programs to eliminate lead dangers, including for homeowners, public housing tenants and building owners. The Lead Safe Washington program, financed by the HUD grants, targeted low-income renters in apartment buildings until it shut down last summer.
From the beginning, the program struggled to take off.
In 2015, the federal agency warned the city that it was failing to spend enough money and placed a $3.7 million grant on high-risk status.
The city proposed fixing 225 units with that money.
But quarter after quarter, the District fell far below its targets and ended up rehabilitating just 41 units, according to documents provided under a records request.
In reports to federal officials, District officials insisted that they were trying to fix units but that many buildings couldn’t qualify because they were tax delinquent and suggested the residents who lived in units with lead paint may not understand the dangers.
In fiscal year 2018, the city received 21 applications through Lead Safe Washington but started work on few of them within the six-month target, according to budget documents. City officials said the applicants had a hard time pulling together the necessary paperwork to demonstrate eligibility.
In interviews, city housing officials questioned whether there really was an unmet need for lead remediation because of the lack of applications, even after they notified local nonprofits and went door-to-door in Ward 8, the poorest part of the city.
“We were doing extensive outreach . . . and the demand did not appear to be there,” Donaldson said.
But the city also told HUD last summer that 121 units in multifamily buildings were awaiting lead remediation, after the federal grant expired.
A HUD spokesman says federal officials tried to help the city put the dollars to use.
“Although HUD’s Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes provided ongoing technical assistance to address performance barriers identified throughout the grant, the grantee was not able to meet their grant program goals and benchmarks,” spokesman Brian Sullivan said in a statement. “We look forward to the District applying for future funding when they are eligible again” in 2020.
But the city’s past failures would be considered if it applies again, and the top housing official wouldn’t commit to doing so.
“We are going to assess the program needs and what the needs are of the residents and what are the best resources to address that,” said Donaldson, who was appointed by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) in 2015.
Going forward, Donaldson said she would have the various lead remediation programs report to one manager and tap money from the city’s fund to preserve and expand affordable housing. She didn’t say if the city would commit more local dollars, which would be detailed in the budget proposal released by the mayor later this month.
Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), a housing committee member, met with Donaldson on Thursday to discuss the matter. Silverman said she believed the housing chief’s explanation that she inherited a troubled program, which the lawmaker sees as part of a broader problem of a lead response bogged down in red tape.
“The concern for me is we have a child who is at real health risk, and there’s no immediate action that happens,” Silverman said. “It’s a very bureaucratic handoff to different agencies that doesn’t actually lead to any kind of mandatory remediation.”