Editor’s note: This is the first in a short series of stories that the newspaper will publish in the coming days on the responsibilities of owners and managers of HUD-subsidized housing to protect children from lead poisoning; Southern Seven Health Department data on elevated blood lead level cases of children living in ACHA properties; and HUD's ability to enforce its lead safety rules and regulations.
CAIRO — In a civil complaint filed late last month, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development claimed, among other things, that ex-Alexander County Housing Authority directors James Wilson and Martha Franklin failed to follow the federal housing agency’s lead safety regulations, and that Wilson falsified compliance.
In essence, HUD is alleging that Wilson and Franklin, by neglecting their obligations, potentially exposed vulnerable young children residing at public housing complexes in Cairo known as Elmwood and McBride over the course of more than a decade to the life-altering effects of lead poisoning.
It’s one of a number of allegations the federal housing agency has leveled against Wilson, who served as the executive director of the ACHA from 1989 to April 2013, and Franklin, who served as finance director from 2004 to April 2013, and as executive director from April 2013 to March 2015.
But it’s among the most serious of the claims outlined in the 46-page complaint because it strikes at the core of the ex-directors’ responsibilities related to resident safety during their tenure — especially where it concerns the health of young children.
The civil case against Wilson and Franklin, which seeks hundreds of thousands of dollars in civil fines for numerous alleged violations of federal housing regulations — including the claims they failed to follow lead safety rules and regulations, while Wilson falsely certified the ACHA had done so — was filed Nov. 28 by HUD’s Office of Hearings and Appeals. The two have 30 days from the filing date to respond.
Unless the case is settled between the parties beforehand, it will be heard by an administrative law judge in Washington, or Wilson and Franklin have the right to request a trial in federal court, according to HUD spokesman Jereon Brown.
In a voicemail message to The Southern about the civil complaint filed against him, Wilson said his only comment was that he wanted to “wish everybody a Merry Christmas.” Franklin’s number is not listed and the newspaper has never been successful in contacting her for comment on this or other matters related to her tenure at the troubled ACHA.
In the civil complaint, the agency is claiming that Wilson failed to comply with the agency’s Lead Safe Housing Rule and Lead Disclosure Rule, which both apply to federally owned or subsidized family housing constructed prior to 1978.
Much of the ACHA’s housing stock was built before 1978, the year the federal government phased out consumer uses of lead-containing paint. The complaint states that between 1991 and 1995, the ACHA conducted testing to identify lead-based paint, which concluded that it was present within the ACHA units and common areas.
Although the ACHA conducted some abatement work on door frames, interior window frames, wood bathroom accessory rails and stairway rail caps in 1993 and 1994, lead-based paint remained on other sources within common areas and units, it reads.
In September 2003, the complaint states, it was discovered that a child residing in an ACHA complex had an elevated blood lead level, which prompted the Illinois Department of Public Health to send a licensed lead inspector/risk assessor to conduct a lead investigation at the property.
In a letter dated Sept. 26, 2003, IDPH advised the ACHA that the risers, baseboard and tread at the complex (the name of the complex is redacted in the complaint) were “determined to be lead-bearing substances” that “must be monitored and maintained,” the complaint states.
In 2017, HUD conducted a lead-based paint inspection at Elmwood and McBride, both of which were built in the early 1940s, the complaint states. (HUD placed the ACHA in administrative receivership on Feb. 22, 2016, and has been running its day-to-day operations since.) While the names of the properties are not listed in the complaint, HUD previously provided the inspection reports for both complexes to The Southern for review.
“The inspection confirmed that lead-based paint was present on stair risers and stair stringers throughout both properties,” the complaint states.
HUD claims that Wilson and Franklin violated the agency’s lead safety rules and regulations in the following ways:
• by failing to disclose to tenants all known lead-based paint and/or lead-based paint hazards at the property;
• failing to provide tenants with all records or reports available concerning lead paint hazards;
• failing to conduct risk assessments;
• failing to abate lead-based paint or conduct interim controls;
• failing to conduct visual assessments;
• and failing to conduct re-evaluations of lead-based paint or lead-based paint hazards, all of which were required of housing authority managers administering public housing programs with federal dollars.
“Despite these ongoing and continuous violations of HUD’s lead-based paint rules and regulations, Wilson, in his capacity as executive director, caused the ACHA to certify to HUD that the ACHA was in compliance with HUD’s lead-based paint regulations, including the LSHR (Lead Safe Housing Rule) and LDR (Lead Disclosure Rule),” the complaint reads.
Certification of compliance with lead safety rules is, by and large, on the honor system, which is why experts and advocates are concerned that HUD lacks the proper tools to compel housing authorities to comply with its lead safety rules and regulations. The agency has made recent efforts to improve its oversight ability, though again, some experts question whether those changes go far enough to address the root of the problem.
In this particular case, 14 years passed from the date of the 2003 IDPH letter cited in the complaint, which HUD claimed should have prompted Wilson to take remediation action the agency alleges he did not do, and HUD filing the complaint against Wilson that included the allegation he falsely certified compliance with lead safety regulations.
HUD conducted the additional testing at the ACHA's McBride and Elmwood complexes only after taking over the ACHA in early 2016, citing years of mismanagement, alleged civil rights violations against residents and poor living conditions. On April 10, HUD told residents of McBride and Elmwood that they would assist all 185 families in relocating because the developments are not safe. As of Friday, 93 of the 185 families had relocated, according to Brown.
Brown said that local public housing authority managers are required to certify compliance with HUD's Lead Safe Housing Rule annually as part of the capital fund grant program award process. If a person makes a false certification to HUD, funding can be pulled, and he or she can be subject to additional sanctions, Brown said.
HUD inspectors that review federally assisted properties on a prescribed schedule perform a quick visual assessment for the presence of lead-based paint and check on the presence of lead-based paint documentation, Brown said. But, he added, they are not certified risk assessors, and are not trained in evaluating lead-based paint documentation.
"These records are often voluminous, and forms have varied over the last 20 years so reviews can take many days," Brown said. "HUD staff do the additional follow up to get copies of lead-based paint records when an issue is noted," he said. "In-depth reviews of lead-based paint evaluations are done in conjunction with the technical experts in the Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes."
About two months after HUD took over the ACHA, HUD administrator Towanda Macon, who is assigned to oversee the ACHA, warned residents at a May 2016 meeting that it did not appear the ACHA had properly tested for lead-based paint. In response, a resident of Elmwood asked Macon whether she should be concerned for the safety of her young grandchildren who are residing at the home, and Macon told her she was “asking all the right questions" as there were “several things that were just not done” by past managers.
As described by the federal housing agency, childhood lead poisoning has “long been documented as causing reduced intelligence, low attention span and reading and learning disabilities; it has additionally been linked to juvenile delinquency, behavioral problems and many other adverse health effects.”
Because the effects of lead poisoning can be lifelong and irreversible, even when the exposure is in low doses, particularly if it is over a long period of time, pediatricians and public health experts strongly recommend prevention strategies.
Wilson, it appears, is the first person that HUD has sought financial sanctions against for allegedly falsifying compliance with lead safety rules and regulations since HUD's Lead Safe Housing Rule became fully effective in 2000. In response to a question from the newspaper about whether there had been other such sanctions sought by the agency, Brown said the agency is not aware of any recent similar cases.
Which means this case may be precedent-setting where it concerns a crucial safety issue for millions of low-income children living in HUD-subsidized housing across the country.
On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI