Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Compromise seen in city lead hazard fight

Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown appears to have reached a compromise in her long-standing effort to require owners of older rental properties to inspect and certify them as free of lead hazards.

Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown appears to have reached a compromise in her long-standing effort to require owners of older rental properties to inspect and certify them as free of lead hazards.

Landlords argued the original bill would have saddled them with "crushing costs," some of which would have been passed on to tenants, including low-income renters who could ill afford to pay more.

Brown, who acknowledged the initial bill was doomed to defeat, introduced amendments on Thursday that seem to have won the reluctant support of renters and health advocates alike.

The amended bill faces a final vote at next week's Council session.

The primary change "narrows the scope" of the bill to apply only to properties where children 6 or younger would be living, Brown said.

"These amendments . . . in no way make for a perfect bill," she said. "These amendments, it is expected, will move us closer to a better bill."

Darrell Zaslow, legal counsel for the Homeowners Association of Philadelphia, praised the changes for softening legislation that "began as a powerful blow against property owners."

"It would be disingenuous for me to say property owners are happy with this bill," he said. "Yet this is a compromise that we . . . will do our best to implement successfully."

Public health advocates - who wanted coverage for all tenants regardless of age, and at least some independent monitoring by the city - also grudgingly supported the compromise as the best they could get.

"It is a step forward for kids," said Colleen McCauley, health policy director at Public Citizens for Children and Youth. "We didn't get the things we wanted, so it feels like a smaller baby step."

City code already prohibits landlords from renting units that contain lead hazards. But the city generally doesn't find out about a problem until it receives reports of children with elevated levels of lead in their blood. It can then order remediation.

"The purpose of this bill was to begin to make a change . . . to not use a child as the canary in the coal mine," said George Gould, a housing expert at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.

The new bill would require landlords to obtain certification that the unit is safe, and to provide that document to the tenant and the Department of Public Health, theoretically closing the loop.

But nothing in the wording of the bill would require landlords to tell the city who will be living in their units, raising questions about how it would be enforced.

"I don't have the answer to that right now," McCauley said. "Some of these unanswered questions are going to have to come out in the regulation, or possibly in another ordinance that would be required to clarify."

Several people on all sides of the issue said carving out a category for units with young children raised issues of discrimination. Unscrupulous landlords could seek to avoid certifying a property as lead-safe by not renting it to families.

"There will be some responsibility for a tenant to volunteer that there will be children living there," Zaslow said.

But he added that the "severe penalties" for violations - up to $2,000 a day on top of forfeiture of rent and the costs of abatement - would compel landlords to comply.

Cases of lead poisoning have dropped dramatically over the last three decades, thanks to bans on lead in gasoline, food cans, and house paint. The issue has remained high on the public health radar screen, however, as scientists discover harmful effects from smaller and smaller amounts of lead.

Lead is dangerous mainly to the developing brains of young children, who are also the most likely to crawl on the floor, breathing lead dust and swallowing chips of old lead paint. Lead poisoning in early childhood can cause permanent cognitive problems.

Elevated lead levels are found in about 1,000 Philadelphia children a year, or 3 percent of those tested.

Brown first introduced her bill nearly three years ago. With a new Council set to be inaugurated on Jan. 2, all pending legislation will be wiped away after next week's Council meeting, the last of the year.