Baltimore loses federal lead-paint funding

Unable to fix up enough homes, city ruled ineligible for new grant

February 28, 2011|By Timothy B. Wheeler and Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore, where thousands of buildings contain lead-based paint that can poison young children, has lost federal funding for abatement programs due to mismanagement of its most recent grant, officials said Monday.

Department of Housing and Urban Development officials told The Baltimore Sun that the city health department failed to fix up enough homes under the latest $4 million grant, which expired in January, and as a result the city was deemed a "high-risk" grantee ineligible to receive more funds.

HUD officials also said they are investigating the way the city managed its last grant, including "administrative" issues, and seeking documentation showing that all the money was spent appropriately. Several homes the city had paid to replace windows did not have lead paint on them, according to a December HUD monitoring report. Also, the report said, the city failed to document that all the homes treated had housed families poor enough to qualify for aid or that children under 6 lived or visited there.

Ruth Ann Norton, director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, a Baltimore-based nonprofit, called the federal funding cutoff a "devastating blow to a program that had built itself up at one point in time to be the gold standard in the United States." She said it was "unthinkable" that problems had gone unaddressed until too late to continue receiving funds.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, meanwhile, said through a spokesman that she was "disappointed" by the loss of federal funds over what the spokesman said were "issues that have plagued the city's program over the past several years." Her spokesman, Ryan O'Doherty, declared that the lead abatement program was being transferred to the city's Department of Housing and Community Development to remedy those issues and restore the city's eligibility for future funding.

Even tiny amounts of lead can harm young children's brains and their nervous systems, reducing their IQs and causing learning and behavioral problems that can last a lifetime. Lead-based paint was widely used in homes until it was banned in Baltimore in 1950, but much of the city's housing stock pre-dates that moratorium, and lead-based paint wasn't actually barred in the rest of the state and nation until 1978.

Jon L. Gant, director of HUD's Office of Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Control, called the funding cutoff "unfortunate," saying Baltimore in the past had been viewed as a model nationally for the way it's dealt with a chronic, once-widespread lead poisoning problem among poor children. The city has received more than $33 million in federal assistance since 1993 to help reduce lead paint hazards in its rental and owner-occupied housing. The funds have helped pay for stabilizing or covering lead-painted surfaces, and even replacing doors and windows in some cases.

The city health department received $3.9 million from HUD in 2007, the city's 8th multi-year grant. But by last summer, HUD officials found that the city was not on pace to remedy lead-paint hazards in enough homes to justify the grant.

"We had to place them on what's called 'high risk,' " Gant said, meaning the city was not meeting the federal office's "benchmarks" for the grant. Gant said federal officials offered to help the health department late last summer and gave city officials some short-term goals to meet to continue the grant.

"But they were not able to meet those short-term goals, either," he added.

The city was expected to fix up at least 364 dwelling units under the grant, but only managed 292, according to Michelle Miller, the HUD office's programs director.

Olivia D. Farrow, deputy city health commissioner, said the city had actually contacted HUD first, asking for more time to find enough houses to fix up. HUD didn't respond until months later, Farrow said, and the city's request for a three-month extension was denied.

In a January reply to the HUD monitoring report, the city health officials said they were tightening their review of homes eligible for funding and insisted the work they had paid for was proven to reduce lead poisoning and had received federal approval in the past.

The city was handicapped in finding homes eligible for fix-up because of various HUD restrictions, Farrow said. Lead hazard funds could not be spent on properties in need of other major repairs, for instance, and homeowners seeking grants needed to be current on their mortgage — something that's become more of a problem lately.

"It might sound like it might be easy just to get a grant for a property," Farrow said. "However, there are a lot of steps one has to go through."

Farrow also noted that lead poisoning has declined dramatically in the past decade or so. The number of poisoned children is down nearly 98 percent statewide since 1994, when a state law was passed requiring owners of rental housing built before 1950 to register and fix up lead-paint risks in their units.

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