Detroit could change rules on monitoring lead in rental properties

Landlords and tenants across Detroit could see less stringent lead surveillance as part of proposed changes to city regulations for the inspection of lead paint in rental properties.

The proposal, approved by the city’s Standing Committee on Public Health and Safety on Monday, eases requirements on how often landlords must test for lead in rental properties known to contain lead, while increasing penalties for landlords who fail to do so keep. Detroit City Council is due to consider the proposal on Tuesday.

“The ultimate goal here is regulatory compliance, especially the lead safety of rental properties to protect children and families,” Dave Bell, director of the Detroit Building Safety and Environment Department, said in a statement to Planet Detroit. Bell’s department proposed the regulation changes. “These changes will help us achieve this by encouraging landlords to comply.”

Under the carrots: Landlords who show efforts in “good faith” by carrying out intermediate solutions such as painting over or coating lead paint or removing it entirely are less likely to be subjected to risk assessments that can be expensive for landlords.

Under the sticks: higher fines and possible administrative offense fees for landlords who do not adhere to them and have a lead-poisoned child in a rented apartment.

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

For other buildings with more than two units but less than five floors, the first offense fine would be increased from $ 1,000 to $ 3,500; the first offense fine for a building with five or more stories would increase from $ 2,000 to $ 4,500.

The city’s current ordinance, passed in 2010, requires a full lead risk assessment, including testing for lead, on land with interim control or encapsulation every year. The new proposal would require that a less stressful visual inspection be carried out each year by a senior inspector certified by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Intermediate checks include temporary measures that landlords must take once they find lead in their rental unit, such as special cleanings, repairs, and temporary containment such as painting. A lead risk assessment is an in-depth assessment that tests dust, dirt, and paint; A visual inspection is a less rigorous inspection that visually identifies potential hazards, but does not identify the presence of lead.

Under the proposal, BSEED and the Detroit Department of Health would work together to report increased blood lead levels in rental apartments each year so that the city council can be informed of a significant increase in lead poisoning in rental apartments.

“We think these are all sensible changes to the regulation that will lead to more safety, better living conditions for tenants and a reduction in the financial burden for responsible landlords,” Bell said in the statement.

Detroit’s Lease Ordinance requires landlords to adhere to health and safety standards for their properties in order to protect tenants. Lead is a major concern because of the high risk of lead poisoning in Detroit’s older apartment buildings – the vast majority of which were built before Congress in 1978 banned lead paint.

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

Lead is a powerful neurotoxin with irreversible effects. Exposure can lead to lifelong cognitive and behavioral problems, especially if people were 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 translates into $ 17-221 in savings from higher life incomes, tax revenues, and lower costs related to special education, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and crime . In Detroit, an average of more than 1,000 children are diagnosed with elevated blood lead levels each year, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

TaNiccia Henry lives in a 100-year-old house in the Herman Kiefer neighborhood of Detroit. In 2013 she became the main carer of her grandson Lloyd. A few years later she found out that her grandson was lead poisoned. Now she spends most of her time advocating for families exposed to lead and carefully cleaning her home to keep lead dust at bay and protect her grandson from further harm.

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

“Just painting over it doesn’t mean you are safe,” she said on Friday. “When you open and close the door or open and close a window, you scratch off the paint, which means you’re creating lead dust.”

Henry, who spoke during the hearing on Monday, wants the risk assessments to continue annually. She would rather the city find ways to reduce the cost of landlord risk assessments than reduce their frequency.

“I understand that the landlords will be burdened financially,” she said. “But I don’t care if it’s $ 1 million or $ 1 million if it saves a child and doesn’t put them in jail or end up in special schools.”

Cierra Cole, who lives in the east, has a lead-poisoned son. She said she believed he was likely exposed in her rented apartment.

TaNiccia Henry started stripping the original lead paint from the ceiling in her living room but then stopped when she realized how bad it was for her and her family.

Cole told Planet Detroit that she carefully cleans her home using logs to reduce lead dust and works with her landlord to combat lead hazards if she finds them in her home. She often hires a babysitter to take her children out of the house for repairs so that they are not exposed to lead dust. With this work she succeeded in lowering the blood lead level of her son below the CDC action value of 5 micrograms per deciliter.

Cole, who also spoke during Monday’s health and safety committee meeting, said she was aware that lead is an ongoing issue not just in her home but across town.

“There will always be lead in this house,” she said. “Unless (my landlord) gets money from the city or someone or something to clear the house of lead – he would literally have to tear it down and rebuild it.”

While Cole would like the city to continue to require a full annual risk assessment, he also fears that the cost to landlords could lead to higher rents that it cannot afford.

“If landlords have to get rid of all this lead and make homes lead-free, they can ultimately choose not to be a landlord anymore because it’s going to be so expensive,” she said. “Or they decide to increase the rent from $ 800 to $ 1,200.”

But Mary Sue Schottenfels, former executive director of the nonprofit healthy living advocacy group CLEARCorps Detroit, told Planet Detroit that more Detroit children are likely to be lead poisoned if these changes are adopted. Schottenfels and other proponents have been negotiating with BSEED for the past few weeks to maintain the annual risk assessment requirement.

Ean Toliver, 1, crawls out onto the porch of his grandmother, TaNiccia Henry's house, where lead paint is peeling.

“This will undoubtedly lead to more lead-poisoning children in Detroit,” said Schottenfels, a longtime advocate of lead poisoning prevention. “Children’s brains develop rapidly between the ages of 1 and 3 years, and exposure to lead hazards at that age is devastating. We believe that rental property owners should conduct an annual risk assessment, especially if intermediate checks are used – which are temporary repairs. ”

Lead hazards resolved with preliminary controls will most likely return within a year in a home built before 1978, and landlords have historically been slow to lead-proof their properties unless directed to do so by regulation .

The cost of complying with Detroit’s Tenancy Regulations is paramount to Detroit landlord Sterling Howard, who owns 150 single-family homes across the city.

“Lead is a public health crisis. And I am not convinced that within the city of Detroit, where I am actively investing, there is a greater effort to recognize this and have sufficient resources to address this problem, ”Howard told Planet Detroit. “There is a concerted effort by many landlords to demonize landlords as the cause of child lead poisoning in the city of Detroit. And so all measures and enforcements around lead seem to be on the back of the landlord. “

Howard said he would like public funds to be made available to help landlords tackle lead hazards in rental units. This can be economic incentives, special financing or a pot of money like a revolving fund.

“This change is an improvement on the current regulation,” he said. “Now landlords need political decision-makers who provide financial support and incentives to achieve compliance.”

It is not known exactly how many rental units there are in the city. Estimates vary widely – from 40,000 based on city data to 130,000 based on census information. According to the Detroit Free Press, only 6,000 had registered under the city’s rental registry ordinance in 2018. The city has struggled to comply with the rent register ordinance passed in 2017. Before that, she had a rent control law on her books for decades, but she didn’t enforce it. More than half of the city’s residents are renters.

During Monday’s public hearing, callers also raised concerns about other sources of lead pollution that were not addressed in the ordinance, including lead in water supply lines and lead dust from demolition of derelict properties. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say lead paint and dust in households are the most common sources of lead exposure in children.

Schottenfels welcomes many of the proposed changes, although she and other leading lawyers with BSEED disagree with interim checks on the reduced frequency of household risk assessments.

“We are grateful to BSEED for the various ways it can improve the regulation – like …” But without frequent and regular inspections / risk assessments it will be really difficult to get a grip on this problem and move the needle in the right direction . ”

Planet Detroit is a weekly email newsletter on local environmental and health topics. Sign up for the Planet Detroit newsletter at PlanetDetroit.org. The Solving Lead & Asthma in Detroit series from Planet Detroit is partially taken over by the Erb Family Foundation. The reporting for this article is supported by the Detroit Documenters of Outlier Media.

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