The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Numerous children have been poisoned by lead in homes approved by D.C. housing inspectors

Chanelle Mattocks, with her son Alonzo Mattocks, 7, was lead poisoned in a home that was approved by DCHA. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Chanelle Mattocks remembers everything about that night in 2014, when lead poisoned her son.

She was giving Alonzo, then 3, a bath in a tub that her landlord had just painted to pass a housing inspection. She turned to find a washcloth, and when she swiveled back, she found the boy with bits of peeling paint in his mouth. She tried get it out, but it was too late.

The lead tests came back positive: Alonzo had more than double what the government defines as “elevated,” and he hasn’t been the same since.

Between March 2013 and March 2018, at least 41 families discovered that their homes, subsidized by a housing voucher and approved by city inspectors, contained lead contaminants, according to a tabulation requested by The Washington Post through the Freedom of Information Act.

The District Department of Energy and Environment, which performed the count and the testing, said it inspected about half of the homes because a child living at the property, or visiting it often, had tested positive for elevated levels of lead; the other homes were investigated following a tip about possible lead hazards. The agency said that the list wasn’t exhaustive and that there may be more.

The findings again highlight key weaknesses in federal guidelines established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which the District and other cities follow. Many rental properties supported by housing vouchers in the city receive inspections under these standards. But they require only visual inspections for peeling paint and don’t mandate lead testing, unlike states such as Maryland and Rhode Island.

“You cannot detect with any certainty that a house does not contain toxic lead dust without doing a dust test, period,” said Ruth Ann Norton, president of ­Baltimore’s Green & Healthy Homes Initiative and one of the nation’s foremost experts on lead-poisoning prevention.

Since 2013, the District has subsidized and inspected more than 18,900 properties, all while it tries to meet a crisis in homelessness and affordable housing. In the first seven months of 2018, the D.C. Department of Human Services placed 367 homeless families — nearly three times as many as it did in 2013, according to city statistics.

Rick White, a spokesman for the District Housing Authority, which performs many of the inspections for subsidized properties, said that most of the voucher properties in the tabulation were overseen by the agency. After hazardous lead was found in the homes, some families moved out when their landlords did not abate the contamination. Other landlords cleared the properties of lead hazards and provided documentation to city authorities, and the families stayed. It is the landlords’ responsibility, he said, to ensure that the homes are free of hazardous lead.

“I do not want you, or your newspaper, mistakenly believing or inaccurately reporting that DCHA is not fully meeting its legal obligations,” he said, adding that the city is also reviewing how cities that have made strides in lead remediation, such as Baltimore, conduct their lead inspections. “Rest assured that if federal laws or regulations are amended, then we will adjust our operating practices accordingly. . . . In all cases, DCHA immediately takes appropriate actions against any private property owner where a DCHA inspector identifies peeling paint.”

The fix for peeling paint, however, often includes another coat of paint. But superficial and cosmetic fixes, according to housing advocates, lawyers and tenants, do little to address more significant and underlying issues, such as plumbing problems or leaking roofs, that can cause paint to crack and peel again. And that’s when lead paint, effectively banned in 1978, becomes dangerous.

“Sometimes families chose housing that may not be great because they feel like they don’t have any other options,” said Kathy Zeisel of the Children’s Law Center. “They may believe the coat of paint has resolved the issue, but by the end of the month, the paint is peeling all over again, and the water is coming through the walls.”

It was a problem for Donna Black. She moved into a house on Rittenhouse Street in Northwest Washington with her housing voucher in 2013, while she was pregnant. When she first saw the home, she didn’t feel good about it but didn’t want to seem “choosy.” Plus, the inspectors had said it was okay, so she assumed it was safe.

“That was very false,” she said.

The roof started leaking. The paint started peeling. She gave birth. She named the baby Damion.

A year later, his blood carried twice the amount of lead the government calls elevated, although most advocates and scientists say any trace of lead in a child’s system can lead to diminished cognitive function.

Four years after that, Black is homeless, living in a Holiday Inn Express with Damion, whose needs her life revolves around. “My son is not a normal 3-year-old,” she said.

A lot of days, she’s filled with anger.

“We’re very upset with the city,” she said. “The city is the number one reason why this has happened to my son. . . . They let our family move in there, and it was fixed up to the point where it could look like it was okay, but it really wasn’t.”

Mattocks, too, has trouble understanding how to a raise a child who is different from her seven other children. Alonzo, now 7, is always behind in his schooling, and she worries about what sort of life he will have. “I’m worried that, as an African American male, they’re already having so many issues with police brutality and being discriminated against that I’m fearful . . . that this will be another barrier that he’ll have to try to get through.”

Mattocks and Black filed lawsuits against the housing authority and their landlords in District Superior Court in 2016, but the housing authority was dismissed from the cases after arguing that it wasn’t liable, although that decision is being appealed. “There really should be stricter standards to protect the children,” said Alan Mensh, the attorney representing the two.

Scott Muchow, the landlord for Mattocks’s property, declined to address specific questions about Alonzo’s lead poisoning. “In late 2016, I received notice of a lawsuit for lead paint related issues at the property from Ms. Mattocks, but during discovery, Ms. Mattocks chose to voluntarily dismiss the case,” Muchow said in a statement.

The lawsuit against Black’s landlord, Jerome Lindsey, who could not be reached to comment, is pending.

Mattocks and Black said they were less interested in money than a sense of justice. They moved into homes that were supposed to be safe but turned out to be anything but, and now they’re raising children whose needs exceed their means. And no one, they say, wants to take responsibility.

“So who do we hold responsible?” Mattocks said. “We have to hold the city accountable, and the landlords accountable, we have to hold all of these people accountable . . . so that the children we call our future, we take care of these children. . . . But how do we do that if we don’t hold them accountable?”