Health news Health & Medical News Baltimore loses federal lead-paint funding

Story Photo: Baltimore loses federal lead-paint funding
Baltimore loses federal lead-paint funding

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.

Even so, more than 500 Maryland children age 6 and younger were found to be poisoned in 2009, the most recent year for which figures are available. Most of those cases, 374, were in Baltimore, where much of the rental housing is aged and dilapidated, in addition to having lead paint.

"It's hard to believe that if you're given money to do 300 houses in Baltimore that you can't immediately identify 300 houses to do work on," Norton said. "We have more than 300 poisoned kids that we can point to and do work in their houses."

Norton said she was pleased to hear the mayor is moving to address the loss of federal funding. But Norton had noted earlier that she had warned Mayor Rawlings-Blake and her predecessor, Sheila Dixon, that there were problems with the way the health department was running the program.

"Baltimore unfortunately is full of leaded houses, and full of need," said Norton. "These are critical resources. This is the worst of all time to lose the money, when resources are so precious."

Because the city had been designated "high risk," it was ineligible to apply for a fresh round of grants awarded in January, when HUD doled out $127 million to 48 projects across the country aimed at cleaning up lead-paint and other health and safety hazards in more than 11,000 homes.

The state Department of Housing and Community Development did apply for one of those grants on behalf of the city, HUD officials said, but did not get it. Gant said he didn't know specifically why the state's request for funds was not accepted, but he said "there might have been some technical issues with the application." The HUD official also noted that the number of communities seeking federal aid to treat lead paint risks in their housing stock has grown over the years

State officials did not respond to repeated requests for information about their grant application.

Norton, whose coalition works with communities around the country to reduce childhood lead poisoning, said problems with the city's lead paint effort have been building for some time. Her previous offers to help sort them out were not responded to, she said.

An earlier, $2.7 million grant for reducing lead-paint risks in Baltimore housing also ran into problems, said Miller, programs director for HUD's Healthy Homes office. However, the 2007 grant had already been awarded by the time the severity of those problems became clear.

Gant said HUD officials discovered "some other administrative issues" with how the city was spending the federal funds after reviewing the health department's files. He declined to go into details on what his grants director called "an ongoing investigation."

The city health department's lead poisoning effort was overseen until recently by Madeleine Shea, a deputy health commissioner. She took a position in January with the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, now headed by her old boss, former city health commissioner Dr. Joshua Sharfstein . Dr. Shea was not available to comment, according to a spokesman at the state health department.

O'Doherty, the mayor's spokesman, said Rawlings-Blake had initiated a review of the program and that it would continue at the city housing department "without significant interruption."

But Farrow noted that about 13 positions at the city health department have been cut because their salaries were funded largely through the HUD lead abatement grant.

Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano said the effort will continue with a scaled-back staff of five under him. The state has offered the city $520,000 that should help cushion the impact of losing the federal grant funds, he added.

Meanwhile, he said his agency would take any necessary "corrective steps" to address HUD's concerns so the city's odds improve when it reapplies for federal grant funds, probably at the end of the year.

More broadly, Graziano said integrating the lead paint abatement program with weatherization and general rehabilitation at Housing makes organizational sense and will create efficiencies that save money.

Norton said she still stands ready to help the city get its program back in the federal government's good graces and eligible to receive funds again. Meanwhile, she said her coalition is doing what it can to help any city residents seeking help removing lead-paint hazards in their homes.

The coalition received a $2 million grant of its own from HUD to help replace windows one of the chief sources of toxic lead dust from old paint but has distributed about two-thirds of that money. Norton said she was hoping to appeal to private philanthropies to help cover the needs until the city can regain funding.

City Councilman Robert W. Curran said he will call a hearing of the council's Health Committee, which he chairs, in the coming weeks. He wants to hear from city health and housing officials, as well as advocates like Norton, to discuss what happened and see if there is any way to restore federal funding.

"This is very unsettling news," Curran said after learning that the federal funding had ended. "We're not done by a long shot on this issue," he added, referring to the health dangers that lead paint still poses in many older Baltimore homes.

Source: By Timothy B. Wheeler and Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun

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