Activists sound alarm on proposed changes to lead ...

Activists sound alarm on proposed changes to lead monitoring requirements for Detroit rentals

The proposal loosens requirements on lead testing in rental properties, while increasing penalties for landlords who don’t comply.

Ean Toliver, 1, crawls on the floor of his grandmother TaNiccia Henry’s house where lead paint is flaking off. Photo by Nick Hagen.

This Planet Detroit story was co-published with the Detroit Free Press.

Landlords and tenants across Detroit could see less stringent monitoring of lead under proposed changes to city rules governing lead paint inspections in rental properties. 

The proposal, which the city’s Public Health & Safety Standing Committee approved Monday, loosens requirements on how often landlords must test for lead in rental properties known to contain lead, while also increasing penalties for landlords who don’t comply. Detroit City Council is slated to consider the proposal Tuesday. 

“The ultimate goal here is code compliance, most importantly, making rental properties lead-safe to protect children and families,” said Dave Bell, director of Detroit’s Buildings Safety Engineering and Environmental Department, in a statement to Planet Detroit. Bell’s department proposed the ordinance changes. â€œThese changes will help us achieve that by providing carrot-and-stick incentives for landlords to come into compliance.” 

Among the carrots: Landlords who show “good faith” efforts by performing interim solutions like painting over or encasing lead paint, or removing it altogether, will be subject to less frequent risk assessments, which can be expensive for landlords. 

Among the sticks: higher fines and possible misdemeanor charges for landlords who do not comply and are found to have a lead-poisoned child inside of a rental. 

The fine for a first offense for a one and two-family unit is currently $500. Under the proposed rules, that fine would increase to $2,500, Bell said during Monday’s meeting.  

Other structures with more than two units but fewer than five stories, the fine for a first offense would increase from $1,000 to $3,500; the fine for a first offense for a building with five stories or more would go from $2,000 to $4,500.

The city’s current ordinance, adopted in 2010, requires a full lead risk assessment, including testing for lead, on properties with interim control measures or encapsulation every year. The new proposal would require a less-onerous visual inspection be performed every year by a third-party Environmental Protection Agency-certified lead inspector.

Interim controls include temporary measures landlords are required to take once they have found lead in their rental unit, like special cleaning, repairs and temporary containment such as painting. A lead risk assessment is an in-depth assessment that tests dust, soil and paint; a visual inspection is a less-stringent inspection that visually identifies potential hazards but does not identify the presence of lead.

Under the proposal, BSEED and the Detroit Health Department would work together to report elevated blood lead levels in rental properties every year so that council can know of any significant uptick in lead poisoning in rental properties.

“We think these are all common-sense modifications to the ordinance that will result in greater safety, better living conditions for tenants and reduce financial burdens on responsible landlords,” Bell said in the statement. 

Detroit’s rental ordinance requires landlords to maintain health and safety standards on their properties to protect tenants. Lead is a key concern because of the high risk of lead poisoning in Detroit’s older housing stock — the vast majority of which was built before Congress banned lead paint in 1978. 

Note: The 2020 decrease is likely due to reduced testing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lead is a potent neurotoxin with irreversible effects. Exposure can lead to lifelong cognitive and behavioral problems, particularly when people are exposed to lead as children. There is no safe blood level for lead.  A 2009 cost-benefit analysis showed that every dollar spent on lead-based paint control returns $17–$221 in savings through increased lifetime earnings, tax revenue and decreased costs related to special education, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and crime. In Detroit, more than 1,000 children are found to have elevated blood lead levels every year on average, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

TaNiccia Henry lives in a home that’s more than 100 years old in Detroit’s Herman Kiefer neighborhood. In 2013, she became the primary caregiver for her grandson, Lloyd. Several years later, she found out her grandson was lead-poisoned. She now spends most of her time advocating on behalf of families exposed to lead and carefully cleaning her home to keep lead dust at bay to protect her grandson from additional harm.

Henry said she believes policy makers don’t understand how easy it is for temporary controls to fail.

“Just painting over it does not mean that you’re safe,” she said Friday. “If you open and close the door, or open and close a window, you are scraping away at the paint, which means you’re creating lead dust.”

TaNiccia Henry started to remove the original lead paint on the ceiling of her living room, but then stopped when she realized how bad it was for her and her family’s health. Photo by Nick Hagen.

Henry, who spoke during Monday’s hearing, wants to see risk assessments continue on an annual basis. She would rather the city find ways to reduce the costs of risk assessments for landlords than reduce their frequency.

“I understand that there is a financial burden on landlords,” she said. “But I don’t care if its $1 or $1 million if it saves a child and they don’t end up incarcerated or in special education.”

East side resident Cierra Cole has a son who was lead-poisoned. She said she believes he was likely exposed in her rental home. 

Cole told Planet Detroit that she diligently cleans her house using protocols to reduce lead dust and works with her landlord to address lead hazards as she finds them in her home. Often, she hires a babysitter to remove her kids from the house during repairs so that they won’t risk being exposed to lead dust. With this work, she has been able to bring her son’s blood lead level below the CDC’s 5 micrograms per deciliter action level. 

Cole, who also spoke during Monday’s health and safety committee meeting, said she realizes that lead is an ongoing issue not only in her home but across the entire city.

“This house is always gonna have lead in it,” she said. “Unless (my landlord) gets money from the city, or through somebody or something to clear the house of lead — he would literally have to tear it down and rebuild it.” 

While Cole would like to see the city continue to require full lead risk assessments annually, she also worries that the expense to landlords could lead to increased rents that she can’t afford.

“If landlords are required to clean up all of this lead themselves and make homes free of lead, they may just decide ultimately not to be a landlord anymore because of how expensive it is going to be,” she said. “Or they may decide to raise the rent from $800 to $1,200.” 

But Mary Sue Schottenfels, former executive director of the nonprofit healthy housing advocacy group CLEARCorps Detroit, told Planet Detroit that more Detroit kids are likely to become lead-poisoned if these changes are adopted. Schottenfels and other advocates have been negotiating with BSEED in recent weeks to preserve the annual requirement for risk assessments.

“This will undoubtedly lead to more lead-poisoned Detroit children,” said Schottenfels, a longtime lead poisoning prevention advocate. “Children’s brains rapidly develop between ages of 1 and 3, and exposure to lead hazards at that age has devastating consequences. We believe that rental property owners should have an annual risk assessment, especially when interim controls are used — which are temporary repairs.” 

Lead hazards remedied with interim controls, she said, will most likely return within a year in a house built before 1978, and landlords historically have been slow to make their properties lead-safe unless encouraged to do so by an ordinance.

The cost of complying with Detroit’s rental ordinance is top of mind for Detroit landlord Sterling Howard, who owns 150 single-family rental homes across the city.

“Lead is a public health crisis. And I’m not convinced that within the city of Detroit, where I am actively investing, that there is a larger effort to recognize that and to have adequate resources available to address this issue,” Howard told Planet Detroit. “A lot of landlords feel that there is this concerted effort to demonize landlords as being the cause for children becoming lead-poisoned within the city of Detroit. And so all the actions and enforcement around lead seem to be on the backs of landlords.”

Howard said he would like to see public money be made available to assist landlords in addressing lead hazards in rental units. That may include economic incentives, special financing or a pot of money like a revolving fund. 

“This amendment is an improvement to the current ordinance,” he said. “Now, landlords need policy makers to assist with financial resources and incentives to achieve compliance.”

It’s not clear exactly how many rental units exist in the city. Estimates range widely — from 40,000 using city data to 130,000 based on census information. According to the Detroit Free Press, in 2018, only 6,000 had registered under the city’s rental registry ordinance. The city has struggled to gain compliance with the rental registry ordinance it adopted in 2017. Before that, it had a rental inspection law on the books for decades but didn’t enforce it. More than half of the city’s residents are renters. 

During Monday’s public hearing, callers also voiced concern over other sources of lead exposure not addressed in the ordinance, including lead in water service lines and exposure to lead dust from the demolition of blighted properties. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust within homes are the most widespread sources of lead exposure to children.

Schottenfels welcomes many of the proposed changes even as she and other lead advocates disagree with BSEED on the reduced frequency for risk assessments in homes with interim controls.

“We are grateful to BSEED for the several ways that they did improve the ordinance — like … upping the fines for properties with a lead-poisoned child and no Certificate of Compliance,” she said. “However, without making inspections/risk assessments frequent and regular, it’s going to be really hard to get a handle on this problem and move the needle in the right direction.” 

 Planet Detroit’s Solving Lead & Asthma in Detroit series is underwritten, in part, by the Erb Family Foundation. Reporting for this article is supported by Outlier Media’s Detroit Documenters.

Nina Misuraca Ignaczak is a contributing editor for Detour Detroit. She is the founder and executive editor of Planet Detroit, a digital media startup that tells Detroit’s environmental stories while building a community of engaged readers who are informed and empowered to act personally and publicly. She is an award-winning freelance journalist who writes, edits and produces stories about the environment, place and identity. Her recent work has been published by Detour Detroit, Belt Magazine, HuffPost, Detroit Free Press, WDET, Crains Detroit Business, Business Insider, Curbed Detroit and Model D. Prior to her career in journalism, she worked in urban planning in the local government and nonprofit sectors. She has a Master of Science in Natural Resource Ecology and a Bachelor of Science in Biology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Twitter: @ninaignaczak