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Credit: Design by Stephanie Rudig, Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

“There could be DANGER in YOUR HOME,” a pamphlet from D.C.’s Department of Housing and Community Development reads. A photo of a grade-schooler in a hot pink blouse—mouth agape, eyes wide—illustrates the issue. 

Above her hands, which are covered in finger paint, the brochure says, “Lead Paint Poisoning: A Silent Epidemic.” A constellation of symptoms are typed around the girl’s body: “Irreversible Brain Damage,” “Learning Problems,” “Muscular Weakness,” “Reduced Growth.” 

“This,” it says, “is how lead paint affects your child.”

D.C.’s housing stock is, in a word, old. The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 American Housing Survey shows that the median housing unit in the DMV was built before 1978, when the federal government banned consumer uses of lead-containing paint. And roughly 44,000 of D.C.’s 104,000 rental housing units are in buildings that were constructed or last remodeled before 1978, according to data culled by D.C. Policy Center Director Yesim Sayin Taylor. Walk-up rentals, which represent about 49,000 housing units, are an average of 43 years old.

Up until about four months ago, the District had a program that would help low-income tenants remediate lead-based paint hazards in older rental properties like these. The program, Lead Safe Washington, provided property owners with funding assistance of up to $17,500 per unit to reduce or eliminate lead-based paint hazards in eligible single- and multi-family properties where low-income tenants live, especially those with children under the age of six. 

D.C.’s Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) operated Lead Safe Washington. The funds came from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s Lead Hazard Reduction Demonstration grant.

D.C. has been the recipient of this grant since 2012, when HUD awarded the city $2.9 million to remediate lead-based paint hazards. As part of its application, DHCD had to set goals against which HUD could measure its progress. The department settled on the benchmark of remediating lead paint hazards in 225 housing units, and providing another 275 with free lead paint inspections and risk assessments. 

It unravelled nearly from the start.

In 2014, when HUD awarded DHCD a second grant for the same purpose—this one for $3.74 million—it still had not fully used the funds from its 2012 grant cycle. By 2015, HUD placed D.C.’s 2012 grant on “High Risk” status, according to letters sent by HUD officials to Mayor Muriel Bowser. That year, HUD also took the significant step of placing a “stop work order” on the 2014 grant. (“This is [the threat of] a premature closeout of a grant based upon performance, which is a very serious thing,” explains HUD spokesperson Brian Sullivan, who calls DHCD’s poor track record with the grant “historical and habitual.”)

In the last three years of its grant cycle, DHCD remediated lead hazards in a total of 35 of its targeted 225 units. It has used a fraction of the awarded funds. Now ineligible to re-apply for the grant’s next cycle, DHCD has also quietly shuttered Lead Safe Washington and laid off the program’s director, though you wouldn’t know that by going to DHCD’s website, which still includes information about the program. 

In an interview with City Paper, DHCD Director Polly Donaldson downplays the significance of Lead Safe Washington’s closure, referring to it as a “restructuring” of the agency that occurred at the behest of her staff. She adds that DHCD functionally absorbed LSW’s programming into DHCD’s existing responsibilities. 

“I can tell you that there were certainly issues identified with the grant over the course of last year. I did direct my team to address those issues with the grant and come up with a plan for how to continue to serve the residents of the District. That was a very clear directive I gave the team,” Donaldson says, declining to elaborate on what those issues entailed.

She also tells City Paper that in fiscal year 2019, the agency is now working “at twice the pace we were in fiscal year 2018, which is good.” The agency’s current model for processing lead abatement subsidies “serves more residents. This structure is the way to do it,” she says. But the profile of that resident has changed with the closure of Lead Safe Washington, which was D.C.’s only dedicated subsidy to remediate lead paint hazards in the homes of low-income renters. 

Anne Cunningham is a senior attorney at the Children’s Law Center, the District’s largest nonprofit legal provider. The organization works with over 5,000 children every year, many of them among the city’s poorest.  

“D.C.does not strategically or meaningfully address the issue of kids being exposed to lead in rental housing,” Cunningham says. “The loss of this grant is is emblematic of the broader problem about how we approach lead in D.C. There are issues with the way agencies test for lead hazards in rental housing.”

Cunningham estimates that, between previously awarded funds that went unspent and losing out on future grant money, D.C. has lost or forfeited about $7.6 million that it could have used to remediate lead hazards in older housing units. 

“We just clearly did not use this resource that could have been so useful,” she says.

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Public health experts have known about the dangers of lead-based paint for decades, but it took the government a while to catch up. In 1992, Congress finally passed the Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act, acknowledging that low-level lead poisoning is “widespread among American children,” affecting about 3,000,000 children under the age of six, “with minority and low-income communities disproportionately affected.” 

Despite attempts at strengthening housing laws for federally subsidized developments to help curb the deterioration of lead-based paint, Congress wrote in the bill that “the Federal response to this national crisis remains severely limited.”

Children under the age of six are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning. According to the World Health Organization, they absorb four to five times as much lead from a given source as adults do, and because of “age-appropriate hand-to-mouth behavior” are also most likely to pick up and swallow flakes or chips of lead-based paint.

“From the Children’s Law Center’s perspective, kids being exposed to lead is such a preventable public health issue,” Cunningham says. “The consequences of kids being exposed to lead long term is so incredibly profound that it is really alarming to me that we aren’t doing more meaningful and strategic work, in respect to rental housing.” 

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The District has largely split the responsibility for identifying and remediating lead hazards between two agencies: DHCD and the Department of Energy and Environment. 

DOEE is often the first part of the puzzle. As part of its lead programming, the agency fields complaints from tenants who believe their homes might contain lead paint or dust hazards and conducts preemptive inspections of properties it has identified as potentially problematic.

If a DOEE inspector identifies a lead hazard inside an apartment or home, they will post an order to eliminate the hazard, which the property owner is then required to remediate at an average cost of between $8 and $15 per square foot. Families are also often forced to relocate during this process, as remediation can release harmful lead dust. 

“We refer a lot of our clients over to DHCD” for financial assistance, says Amber Sturdivant, who leads DOEE’s lead and healthy homes division. (DOEE itself only completes around 200 inspections per year.)

One of those mechanisms for financial assistance was Lead Safe Washington. Property owners, including those who own occupied multi-family residential properties built before 1978, could apply for lead abatement grants through some of D.C.’s Community Based Organizations, or CBOs. These include organizations like University Legal Services or Housing Counseling Services. (DHCD wasn’t awarded the HUD grant in a lump sum. It would submit receipts to the agency for reimbursement, drawing down from its grant award, which HUD held.)

Housing advocates in D.C., even those who have helped usher tenants through Lead Safe Washington’s application process, acknowledge that tenants whose landlords applied for the program on their behalf found the procedure cumbersome. 

DHCD’s approval process for Lead Safe Washington’s subsidies didn’t “happen overnight,” Sturdivant says. “There’s a lot of paperwork, a lot of approvals. It may take months or years. If the property isn’t in the [tenant’s] name, they have to get a deed change, which is a huge problem in the District. They have to stay in compliance with the program’s taxes and homeowners’ insurance requirement.” Beneficiaries of the grant had to prove they met the program’s income restrictions, which was about $69,000 for a two-person household.

This is one possible explanation for why it was difficult for the District to meet its spending goals, says Anabell Martinez, the housing policy director at the the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), which also helps clients apply for lead paint remediation grants from DHCD. The clients she works with are typically lower-income, and English may not be their first language. Not many were enthused when their landlords applied for Lead Safe Washington, which made tenants provide extensive personal information to show that they met the program’s income requirements.

Allison Ladd, DHCD’s deputy director, cites HUD’s requirement that some Lead Safe Washington applicants have a child under the age of six in their home as “one very strict requirement” that made hitting DHCD’s goals “a challenge.”

The department’s initial goal, as articulated in its very first grant proposal, was to remediate lead hazards in 225 homes. City Paper asked Donaldson why that figure was the department’s benchmark. “Both of those grants were submitted under the previous administration, so I can’t describe why that number was chosen,” she says.

City Paper asked Donaldson whether DHCD has reassessed that number, and if so, what it believes is more realistic for the department today. “I have not,” Donaldson says.

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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DHCD’s annual grant reports and other documents show that the agency spent little of its award, raising questions about how the agency managed the program. 

Donaldson says that when she first took the helm of DHCD in 2015, Lead Safe Washington’s program manager position was vacant. “There was not a team leader to administer the grant, one of the reasons performance wasn’t meeting the metrics,” Donaldson says. So the department hired one. 

As part of its grant award from HUD, DHCD was required to match spending of about $1.2 million, which came from the department’s Housing Production Trust Fund. DHCD’s annual expenditures from the grant are publicly available on the website of D.C.’s Chief Financial Officer. They show that even after Donaldson took over the agency and made new hires to oversee Lead Safe Washington, DHCD’s grant spending has largely continued to decline year to year since 2014.

In 2014, the agency drew down just over $800,000 from the grant; by 2016, that figure dropped to $511,000. Spending rose slightly to $572,000 in 2017, though about half of that money came from unused funds awarded in 2014. In 2018, despite reporting that it had about $2.5 million in available grant funds, DHCD drew down only $435,000 from the grant, the CFO’s website shows. 

DHCD was “not able to turn around the program in that way,” Donaldson says. “Basically we were not able to address the issues, but we thought [hiring a program manager] would help address that.”

D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson had trouble figuring out just how many units the program helped benefit. “DHCD could not provide us with a list of units preserved through its single-family programs (i.e. Single Family Residential Rehabilitation Program and Lead Safe Washington),” a March 2018 audit of the department’s HPTF spending reads. 

Last September, just weeks before Lead Safe Washington folded, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen introduced the “Lead Hazard Prevention and Elimination Amendment Act of 2018.” 

The bill would require that landlords provide their renters with evidence that a rental unit is free of lead paint, or that the landlord has taken steps to remediate lead-based paint hazards, as well as reduce the threshold for blood-lead levels that are considered acceptable. 

It would also establish a locally sourced fund to help abate lead paint hazards in units occupied by low-income tenants. 

“There’s a recognition that we do have a substantial housing stock that is older homes. A lot of them are over 100 years old. There are going to be some costs associated [with more frequent lead testing] and I don’t want the cost to be a barrier for the owners to do the right thing,” Allen tells City Paper. “Government is frequently not the model of efficiency. We want to recognize that we always have room for improvement in how we have our agencies work together.” 

The bill was referred to the Committee on Transportation and the Environment, but never received a markup, and effectively expired with the end of the last Council period. Allen plans on reintroducing it this spring. (The Children’s Law Center worked with Allen’s legislative staff to design the bill.)

In the current absence of a locally funded subsidy to remediate lead hazards, Donaldson cites the department’s Single Family Residential Rehabilitation Program, which subsidizes homeowners’ property repairs, as a sufficient alternative to Lead Safe Washington.

But the Single Family Residential Rehabilitation Program applies only to owner-occupied single family homes, which City Paper pointed out during an interview with Donaldson. “That’s true,” she said after a pause. Donaldson adds that the agency is still processing “every one” of the applications submitted to Lead Safe Washington when it was still around. 

But housing advocates say they’re also turning people away. One social services provider, who requested anonymity, tells City Paper that Lead Safe Washington never processed the application of a homeowner “in serious need” of the program. 

The man came to the social service provider two years ago because he “had small children, peeling paint, a roof problem, lots of issues,” the social service provider says, “but he never got into the program. We sent him to the CBO to fill out his application. We kept following up, and [DHCD] never processed his application. This was when they still had money in the program. [It] was kind of appalling.”

The Central American Resource Center’s Anabell Martinez says that a nonprofit housing developer approached CARECEN in December about applying for a Lead Safe Washington grant to help abate lead hazards at an affordable building on New Hampshire Avenue NW. “But DHCD said, ‘We no longer have it,’ and that they’re focusing on single family homes,” she says. 

“Those people need the program.”

Credit: Darrow Montgomery