Safety measures to ensure that children are protected from the dangers of lead poisoning while living in District homes may soon become a lot more stringent.
The D.C. Council is considering a bill to shore up weaknesses in lead-poisoning-prevention laws that in recent years have led to elevated blood lead levels for some low-income children in subsidized rental housing.
“When you’re thinking about vulnerable families in rental units or on vouchers, you’re talking about families who don’t have the same level of agency or capacity to up and move somewhere,” said council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who introduced the bill this month. “So we need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to make sure they’re safe.”
The legislation, which has six co-sponsors and appears to have the support of two additional council members, would strengthen laws in several crucial ways.
It would require all landlords renting property built before 1978, the year lead paint was effectively banned, to provide a clearance report to new tenants showing that inspectors have done lead-dust testing and the property is safe. It would also strengthen steps for remediation, which may include asking landlords to remove baseboards in units where lead has been found to keep potential contaminants out of a child’s reach. The law would also establish a fund to offset landlord expenses when making repairs so the supply of affordable housing is not affected.
Under current city regulations, landlords are only required to provide a clearance report if they’re aware a child under the age of 6 or a pregnant woman is living at a property built before 1978. Housing inspections of most subsidized properties only require visual examinations and not lead-dust testing.
Allen said he decided to introduce the bill after reading an article in The Washington Post last month about the prevalence of lead-contaminated low-income housing in the city. It reported that, between March 2013 and March 2018, at least 41 families had discovered that their homes, subsidized by a housing voucher and approved by city inspectors, contained lead contaminants. At least half of the homes were inhabited by a child who had tested positive for elevated levels of lead.
One girl, whose story was chronicled by The Post last year, had a blood lead level of 120 micrograms — 24 times what the government calls elevated. District officials had called the 2-year-old girl’s case the worst incident of lead poisoning in the city in at least 20 years.
The proposals come at a time when cities are still reckoning with how to mitigate lead poisoning — even decades after a scientific consensus was reached about its effects, which can include diminished cognitive capacity and behavioral problems. In New York City, the housing authority this summer reported that more than 800 children were poisoned between 2012 and 2016. In Flint, Mich., the fertility rate dropped after the city started using lead-contaminated drinking water from the Flint River in 2014, researchers found last year.
Some states have responded to the devastating fallout of lead poisoning by passing strict measures, such as Maryland and Rhode Island, which require lead-dust testing of all rental properties. District agencies now follow guidelines established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that just require visual inspections for peeling paint.
Advocates applauded the bill.
“Right now, so many of D.C.’s laws and practices surrounding lead are reactive — the response starts after we’ve found a child who has lead poisoning,” said Anne Cunningham, senior policy attorney at Children’s Law Center. “This law will enhance families’ ability to make sure that lead paint is maintained and contained in a way that ensures their kids aren’t being exposed.”
But landlord representatives expressed caution. The Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington said in a statement that it may not be necessary to test every rental unit built before 1978 and that the city should instead focus on known problem areas.
Randy Weiss, a real estate attorney in the District, said the legislation may have unintended effects. “While safety is paramount to all, we should not do anything to make our housing shortage even worse by encouraging housing units to be taken off the market,” he said. “The legislation could have that result.”