Problems prevent lead abatement program from advancing

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 3/15/2019, 6 a.m.
Daniel Mouer has $2.7 million to spend on removing hazardous lead paint lingering in Richmond residences more than 40 years …

Daniel Mouer has $2.7 million to spend on removing hazardous lead paint lingering in Richmond residences more than 40 years after it was banned.

But the project development manager at City Hall is struggling to find landlords and homeowners willing to let him do the work using money awarded to the city in 2017 by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

As of Feb. 23, lead removal has been completed on 10 homes, Mr. Mouer said, well short of the 50 residences that were supposed to be completed in the first 12 months of the grant that became active in March 2018.

Mr. Mouer said the program has spent $10,000 to $20,000 per residence to abate the lead hazard, including repainting walls and replacing windows and doors.

The shortage of homes has made it harder to offer training to small contractors seeking to earn state certification in lead remediation to compete for jobs. “We haven’t had the work,” Mr. Mouer said.

However, in response to contractor complaints, the city is planning to hold its first lead supervisor training class for contractors and construction managers who want to operate certified lead paint abatement companies or to do the work for someone else.

The four-day program being offered without charge will be held Monday, March 25, through Thursday, March 28, at the East District Initiative Building, 701 N. 25th St., it has been announced

Participants are required to register and pre-qualify with the training host, the Office of Community Wealth Building, to attend the 34 hours of training, according to Sherrilyn Hicks, the OCWB employment specialist who is taking applications.

The city promised to remove lead hazards from 150 homes when it was awarded the grant. But at the current pace, that might never happen, Mr. Mouer acknowledged.

He said HUD is not allowing him to reduce that promised number.

Mr. Mouer said he has done everything he could think of to get the word out. He has sent out information on the grant funding in utility bills, highlighted it using the city’s social media and other messaging. He has attended community and civic association meetings and elsewhere to promote the program.

“So far, nothing has worked,” he said. “When I talk with people in other communities with grants, they are just as puzzled as I am at the lack of response.”

To help, the Department of Housing and Community Development has temporarily assigned a member of its staff, James E. “J.J.” Minor III, who also serves as president of the Richmond Branch NAACP, to assist with outreach.

There are some strict guidelines to qualify for grant funding. Homeowners and tenants have to meet the low-income requirements, and the household must include a child under age 4 or a pregnant woman, among other things.

However, Mr. Mouer said he has not had much luck even when there are qualifying people and the residence is identified with a lead hazard after a child’s blood test shows high levels of lead.

Tenants express worry about being evicted or having their rent go up after the work is done, he said, while landlords express concern about lawsuits, even though the program addresses both concerns and there is a state law granting immunity to property owners involved in lead abatement.

Landlords also bridle at being required to allow current residents to remain for at least three years after the work is done, he indicated.

“We’re open for business, and we’re hoping more people will respond so we can use this money,” Mr. Mouer said.

For years, HUD has been providing lead grants to eliminate lead poisoning that can damage the growing brains and organs of babies and toddlers if they breathe lead-tainted dust or eat peeling paint in old homes.

If the source of the lead is not removed, including old windows and doors and aging walls, the lead can create irreversible damage in young children, causing behavior problems and even loss of control of bodily functions.

Like many older cities, Richmond has plenty of homes with lead paint. An estimated 70 percent of the city’s more than 90,000 apartments and homes were built before 1978, when the ban on lead paint went into effect, according to Mr. Mouer and Yvonne T. Johnson of the Richmond City Health District’s Lead-Safe & Healthy Homes Initiative, a partner on the grant.

Ms. Johnson said that every year, 10 to 20 Richmond children are identified with elevated lead levels. By law, young children must have their blood tested for lead. Labs and pediatricians must report their findings to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which notifies state and local health departments.

She said the department is monitoring about 50 children with high levels of lead in their blood and about 50 children with low levels of lead and working with their parents and property owners on finding the source and having it removed.

The public health district has authority to issue violation notices and even get a court order to condemn property after a lead hazard is identified, said Dr. Danny Avula, director of the Richmond and Henrico health districts. But rarely, if ever, has court action been needed.

“We try to work with those involved,” Dr. Avula said. “Our goal is to get the problem taken care of.”

Mr. Mouer is among those notified when the health district identifies a property, and he said the owners are notified about the grant. But he said most of the owners are uninterested in the money the city has to offer.

Zakia Shabazz, who organized the national nonprofit United Parents Against Lead to spread information about lead poisoning, believes the city is not doing enough. She has been critical of the city’s informational brochures and the approach the city has taken.

However, she acknowledged that her ability to be involved has been limited because she had allowed her lead certifications to lapse.

“I’m working to get my certification again,” she said.

Mr. Mouer said he has listened to Ms. Shabazz and sought to use her information. He said he is open to any suggestions that would help rev up the lead remediation effort.

The grant is the first that HUD has awarded to the City of Richmond since 2003. The federal agency stopped such grants to the city for more than 13 years because Richmond was not able to meet its promises at the time for removing lead hazards.

Ms. Shabazz said she was able to get lead paint removed from 100 homes in three years after HUD in 2004 bypassed the city and awarded UPAL the grant.

However, she said that HUD, under pressure from local governments, stopped awarding lead grants to nonprofit groups like hers in 2008.

Details on the program: Mr. Mouer, (804) 646-7025 or Daniel.Mouer@Richmondgov.com or Ms. Johnson, (804)205-3727 or Yvonne.Johnson@vdh.virginia.gov.