Two Southern Illinois housing authorities will receive nearly $2 million to identify and address lead-based paint hazards in decades-old apartment complexes.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Tuesday awarded $1 million to the Union County Housing Authority, and $943,027 to the East St. Louis Housing Authority.
These two housing authorities, the only ones selected in Illinois, were among 38 nationally to receive a combined $27.8 million targeting hundreds of units occupied by young children and their families for remediation activities.
The federal government banned consumer uses of lead-containing paint in 1978, but it was used in many homes and apartment complexes built prior to that date.
Union County Housing Authority Executive Director Kelly Carter said he applied in the spring, and was surprised to learn Tuesday that his agency had been selected. Union County’s housing authority manages 346 public housing units throughout the small towns of Anna, Jonesboro, Cobden and Dongola. Like most of the public housing throughout the region, Union County’s is decades old. The developments were constructed between the late 1960s and early 1970s — all of them before 1978.
Nearly 20 years ago, the Union County Housing Authority had all of its units inspected for lead-paint hazards. No serious risks were identified at the time. But no further efforts have been undertaken since 1991 to ensure that’s still the case, he noted. Since then, the technology used to identify lead hazards has improved significantly. “I thought our tests were outdated,” Carter said of why he decided to seek the funding.
“We don’t have any evidence to say that we have that problem here. But the function of the grant is to make sure we don’t. And if we do, we’ll remediate it. This is a hot topic, for good reason. I would feel better knowing it’s taken care of, if it does exist.”
Without the special grant assistance, specialized testing would be cost-prohibitive for his agency, Carter said.
Lead paint has a sweet taste, and children are apt to put paint chips or dust collected on their hands into their mouths. Even at low levels, lead poisoning can cause lifelong developmental delays in young children. Those under age 6 are especially at risk.
Poor enforcement of a patchwork of complex federal, state and local laws governing lead-based paint remediation in rental units has had detrimental consequences for thousands of children nationwide, including in Illinois. Children from poor families are far more likely to be lead poisoned than children from middle-class or wealthy families. According to HUD, about 24 million older homes still contain significant lead-based paint hazards.
Because of the stricter federal rules that apply to them, homes receiving federal assistance tend to have a lower prevalence of lead-based paint hazards compared to nonsubsidized private housing, according to HUD.
Years ago, housing authorities were required to test for lead-based paint, and where it was found, either fully remove it or take steps to encapsulate it. If the latter option was chosen, local housing officials are supposed to provide ongoing monitoring as chipping, peeling and cracking paint can expose the poisonous element again.
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HUD ensures compliance, in part, by asking housing authorities to annually self-certify that they are following all lead safety rules. But “there are still some public housing complexes where lead-based paint remains and hazards have redeveloped,” HUD said in a statement Tuesday.
HUD Secretary Ben Carson, who spent most of his career as a pediatric neurosurgeon, has repeatedly stressed his support for federal programs aimed at identifying and remediating lead hazards.
“We have no higher calling than to make certain the public housing that taxpayers support is healthy for our vulnerable families to live in,” Carson said in a statement issued by HUD on Tuesday. Carson said that as a doctor, he witnessed how housing conditions affected the health of his young patients. “Today, we make another critical investment in the future of young children growing up in public housing,” he said.
Children who are poisoned by lead can face problems that include reduced IQ, learning disabilities, developmental delays, reduced height and impaired hearing. While Carson has endorsed increased funding for programs that seek to reduce lead hazards, housing advocates have been critical of the administration’s overall budget proposals that have sought to slash funding to programs that pay for more robust repairs to neglected, aging public housing complexes.
Deteriorating conditions have increased the likelihood that families are exposed to health hazards such as peeling lead-based paint, mold and infestation. Congress has thus far rejected those more drastic cost-cutting proposals, but housing authorities are still short billions of dollars as the backlog of deferred maintenance projects grows.
And last year, two federal watchdog agencies — the HUD Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Government Accountability Office — criticized HUD’s lax enforcement of its own rules intended to protect children living in federally subsidized housing.
HUD’s release doesn’t speak to other environmental risks that could increase the likelihood of lead poisoning. For instance, the joints of copper water pipes in old buildings may contain lead, as HUD found in Cairo's public housing complexes after taking over there. Lead may also be found in the soil where kids play outside in apartment complexes built near abandoned industrial sites or rail yards.
HUD has taken action against other housing authorities for falsely certifying compliance with lead-paint requirements, including the New York City Housing Authority and Alexander County Housing Authority, in Cairo. But the agency has repeatedly declined to answer specific questions about its own lead-paint remediation and monitoring activities at the East St. Louis Housing Authority during the 32-year span that it was under federal receivership.
State Department of Public Health records indicate that at least 100 children tested positive for dangerously high lead levels between 1995 and 2015, during which time the housing authority was directly under HUD’s control. HUD inspectors had also cited the housing authority in recent years for missing lead-based paint inspection reports, as well as missing disclosure forms that residents are asked to sign to indicate they have been informed of the risks in their building.
As reported by The Southern last year, a lead-paint inspection conducted in 2018 at Samuel Gompers Homes, constructed in 1942, found concerning levels of lead on interior room surfaces in reach of children, such as on window sills in living rooms and bedrooms. In many instances, the paint was found to be in poor condition, meaning it was peeling or chipping, and posed a risk.
At the time, East St. Louis Housing Authority Executive Director Mildred Motley said her agency was planning to conduct further assessments “to determine the exact impact of the alleged lead levels." She also noted that the housing authority had applied for a grant from HUD to assist with assessments and abatement if necessary. Motley did not return an email seeking comment on Tuesday. HUD spokesman Jereon Brown said the funding can be used by housing authorities to conduct risk assessments across all of their properties, as well as to address concerns if and where they are identified. Brown has previously said that he could not speak to HUD’s past activities concerning lead-paint remediation in East St. Louis because the agency does not have a historian. He also declined to review inspection records, citing time limitations.
Brown added that the agency's new inspection system, which HUD will soon begin testing across the country, will more heavily emphasize health hazards such as lead-based paint.
On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI