Baltimore goes from lead paint cleanup leader to 'in the red'

HUD cuts off funding after years of missed benchmarks

March 06, 2011|By Timothy B. Wheeler and Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun

Joe Pawley says he's fighting to save his children's future, and he's feeling very alone right now.

During routine testing last summer, his 2-year-old son, Aaron, was found to have a dangerous level of lead in his blood, and city health workers found the toxic metal in the paint on the window sills, baseboards and walls of the Pawleys' rowhouse in Southwest Baltimore.

The family sought help from the city Health Department to hire a contractor to remove or cover the deteriorating lead paint, which could cause lifelong learning and behavioral problems for their three young children. The agency has federal funds for such work. But their application was rejected, Pawley says, and he's not sure why.

"If you can't get the city to come out here and help out a homeowner or somebody who has lead, I think the city don't really care," he said, as Aaron and another son, 22-month-old Joshua, scampered about. A box of wet wipes sat on the television, for scrubbing his youngsters' hands of any lead dust they might pick up and put in their mouths.

The Pawleys are one of hundreds of families in Baltimore struggling to protect young children from the lead paint that lurks in older homes. Over the years, the city has helped thousands like them, using tens of millions of dollars in federal funds. Its efforts put the city at the forefront of the nation's campaign to reduce lead paint hazards.

But now, the federal tap has been shut off. Problems with the city's program to treat lead paint in homes caused the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to declare the local health agency ineligible for new grants.

"How do you go from being a model all these years and then suddenly have your money taken away? That's the open question," said Rebecca Morley, executive director of the National Center for Healthy Housing, a Columbia-based nonprofit that works on lead paint and other housing issues.

According to HUD documents and interviews, the city has been struggling for years, since shortly after it received its most recent grant, of $3.9 million in 2007. The Health Department was chronically behind in fixing enough houses to meet its goal, and by last summer had done just 141 of the 364 it had pledged to do by January of this year. It also had fallen "extremely behind," in a HUD official's words, in lining up homes to work on.

The cutoff has left city officials scrambling to shift the lead-paint effort to Baltimore Housing, which handles other federal grants to weatherize and rehabilitate homes, and to scrape together local and state money to keep the work going. HUD officials, meanwhile, have raised concerns about how the grant was handled and are poring over the city Health Department's records to see if all of it was spent appropriately on reducing lead paint hazards.

The federal cutoff surprised many, because Baltimore has long been praised as a leader among the nation's cities in trying to protect its children from the scourge of lead poisoning.

In the early 1990s, as the federal government began to pour money into tackling what many belatedly realized was a nationwide epidemic, Baltimore's abatement program was lauded by the bureaucrats in Washington who wrote the checks. Since 1993, they have funneled more than $33 million to the city in eight grants ranging from $2 million to $6 million.

"We were actually ranked No. 1," recalls Scott Rifkin, who was chief of lead abatement for the city Health Department in 1994. Baltimore was fixing lead-paint hazards in more homes than any other city at the time, he said.

But in the years since then, Baltimore's reputation for leadership in the struggle has been tarnished, at least in the eyes of federal housing officials. The city Health Department went from No. 1 to falling "in the red," making it ineligible to apply for new lead hazard reduction grants from HUD, the main source of funding for the costly work of repairing homes with flaking, chipping, lead-based paint.

While the city's difficulties might be news to some, the Health Department has been struggling for years to fix enough lead-riddled houses to meet the goals of its grants, and there were multiple warnings before HUD stepped in last fall, according to interviews and records provided by federal officials and others.

Within months of the most recent grant, given in 2007, Baltimore health officials were failing to treat enough homes and meet other benchmarks, HUD officials said.

"They've had performance difficulties the entire time," said Michelle Miller, programs director for HUD's Office of Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Control.

City health officials say they got off to a slow start in part because they were trying to complete the work called for under prior grants totaling $6.7 million that HUD had given Baltimore in 2004 and 2005. The lead-abatement work on those had been handled at first by Healthy Start, a nonprofit that had been the Health Department's partner in the effort since the 1990s.

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