Hazards and hopes: The silver lining in Baltimore's lead paint setback

Despite Baltimore's lead paint setback, the city can again become a leader in protecting children's health

March 10, 2011|By Ruth Ann Norton

Baltimore City's loss of federal funds to remove lead-paint hazards from the city's housing stock is an unfortunate and unnecessary setback for a program that at one time had been regarded as one of the country's best.

But where there are challenges, there are also opportunities. By making key changes in how the city's lead program is administered, Baltimore can not only regain federal funding but also be smarter and more innovative in how we rehabilitate older homes for the safety and well-being of children and families. The city must once again become a leader in creating green, healthy and lead-safe housing for its children.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has already taken an important first step by embracing key recommendations made by the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning. Strengthening program management and aligning the lead program with the city's weatherization, energy efficiency and home-repair efforts would allow the city to more effectively and comprehensively address distressed housing and efficiently process applications for families and homes of greatest need.

A new management approach is needed to increase accountability and ensure that all funds, whether public or private, are administered in a manner that is true to the funds' purpose. In particular, city staff working in the lead, weatherization or healthy homes programs must have thorough training on the program's mission and guidelines. This must be done while adopting the best practices advanced in older cities around the country.

The city should immediately institute a process for sharing data across programs and coordinating funds to save money and do the work more effectively. To improve accountability, the city should also reinstate a process like LeadStat to track unit production and outcomes. It's also critical that families know about available services and have ready access to them because there are clearly enough homes in need of remediation.

In discussing the lost federal funds, Baltimore officials said that they were hampered by the city's challenging housing stock, which is beset by a host of defects — not just lead hazards. In a city like Baltimore, with generations of disinvestment in older housing, this is all too common.

In response to these issues that plague older communities, the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning created the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative (GHHI), a national program that takes a holistic approach to address all the problems in a home at one time.

A house requiring replacement windows to remove lead paint may need additional assistance because of a leaking roof, mold or pests. Frequently, one program or agency can address only a single aspect of a home's problems — such as lead paint or the need for weatherization.

The GHHI model aligns public policies and practices, combines housing intervention funds to promote health, safety and energy conservation and coordinates programs to maximize efficiencies. The early results on GHHI are stellar: drastic reductions in asthma episodes for resident children, increased energy savings, lower maintenance costs, and lead-safe housing.

Integrating these programs also saves approximately 20 percent in upfront costs. For example, the GHHI approach helped an East Baltimore homeowner and her three grandsons by both eliminating lead hazards and reducing costly asthma triggers by leveraging public and local philanthropic dollars. Not only did this result in healthier kids and a safer and more energy-efficient home, but these services were delivered at lower cost because the work was coordinated and streamlined.

The Green and Healthy Homes Initiative is now working in 15 localities nationally with more 31 cities seeking designation as a GHHI site. In addition to its health benefits, GHHI helps stabilize neighborhoods by making the care and upkeep of units more affordable over the long term. GHHI programs also provide better economic opportunities for low-income individuals by training them as certified green-collar contractors. Most recently, GHHI projects in Atlanta, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Philadelphia and Providence, R.I., were successful in obtaining support from HUD's Office of Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Control to strengthen their work in protecting children from home-based environmental hazards.

Working together across government and the private sector, we have reduced childhood lead poisoning by 96 percent in Baltimore — but that still leaves hundreds of children impacted every year by this tragic, costly and irreversible disease. We cannot let the current problems with the City's HUD grants slow our work or our progress. We have to work with the city to turn the current challenge into better opportunities through innovation and a recommitment to excellence.

Together, we must endeavor to break the link between unhealthy housing and unhealthy children and to finally end childhood lead poisoning in Baltimore.

Ruth Ann Norton is executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning. Her e-mail is ranorton@leadsafe.org.

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