Of all the crises the city is battling — poverty and opioids, to name just two — one has been getting welcome attention the last few years: the environmental toxins in aging buildings from lead paint and other hazards that are damaging babies and small children.
These hazards hit an old city like ours hard, not just because of the age of so many residences and schools, but because of the level of harm that such toxins inflict on children: brain damage, learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and other severe developmental issues. Many of these children live in low-income and minority neighborhoods, so these hazards help keep the circle of poverty unbroken.
When The Inquirer uncovered some of these issues in the city’s schools in its Toxic City series, Governor Wolf acted quickly to find $15.7 million for emergency cleanup at some of Philadelphia’s most rundown schools. Lately, Senator Vincent Hughes is pushing for some of the state budget surplus to go toward further clean up and repair of schools around the state, many of which are notorious for lead, asbestos, and other hazards. And Councilwoman Helen Gym is encouraging the School District of Philadelphia to invest $30 million of its fund balance (or surplus) to urgent repairs and maintenance of school buildings.
For the past 18 months, Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown has been convening landlords as well as housing, health, and child advocates to hammer out a way to make sure housing units occupied by children are safe. Current law requires landlords renting to families with children aged 6 and under to certify their buildings are safe from lead. A new proposal would amend that to require certification on all units built before 1978, whether or not they are rented to families with children.
Obviously, property owners and landlords are not happy at the prospect. But health and child advocates point out that there is no way of ensuring compliance now, since it’s impossible to know where families with small children are occupying rental properties. Having a broader range of certification would help streamline compliance; landlords would have to provide proof of lead certification in order to get a rental license.
This is the how the law has operated in Baltimore for at least 20 years, and lead poisoning cases have dropped to the lowest point on record.
The bill was expected to be put to a vote this week, but the Councilwoman pulled it, saying she had a new concern about how it would be implemented. She wants to convene yet another conversation after Council breaks for the summer.
That’s a shame, not just because it slows the battle to keep children from being exposed to lead, when every day counts, but pauses what has become an appropriate sense of urgency for addressing these hazards.