New York Department of Health officials plan to spend close to $38 million in the next two years to stop childhood lead poisoning in communities like Syracuse by cataloging rental properties and fining owners who refuse to address lead risks.

But some area lead advocates said they’re not confident the DOH plan will work. 

The measure is part of the 2024 state budget, which was agreed upon by Albany lawmakers last week after negotiating for more than a month, and is meant to crack down on properties that pose a lead poisoning hazard. The plan calls for the DOH to create a database of rental properties with two or more housing units built before 1980. Property owners will be required to conduct three inspections per year to ensure the homes are lead free and report said findings with their local health departments.

DOH is in the early planning stages of the registry, but DOH spokesperson Erin Clary told Central Current the department’s director is tasked with devising fines to ensure compliance. 

State officials hope the plan can address a major crisis, as New York has the highest number of childhood lead poisoning cases in the country. In Syracuse, about one in 10 children tested for lead in Syracuse in 2022 showed elevated levels of the toxic element in their blood. Much like other upstate metropolitan areas, Syracuse has an aging housing stock, making most properties in the city likely to have at some point posed a lead poisoning hazard to renters. The state and federal governments banned the use of lead paint in the ’70s, and a report from Home Headquarters shows about 91% of the city’s housing was built prior to 1980.

At a Tuesday press conference at the State Capitol, a delegation of Syracuse advocates called on legislators to further support the state’s rental registry, with some showing particular skepticism about the impacts of the program on remediating the high numbers of poisoned children. 

Darlene Medley, a founder of the local organization Families for Lead Freedom Now, has seen the effects of lead poisoning first hand. She is the mother of Rashad and Devon Wiliams, a pair of 7-year-old twins who she says were robbed of their potential from an early age. A blood test found them both to have elevated blood lead levels when they were 2 years old. 

The World Health Organization deems lead a neurotoxin in children, noting that the chemical element attacks the brain and the central nervous system at high levels of exposure. This can lead to convulsions and even death, with other long-term effects such as intellectual disabilities and behavioral disorders. 

“They say with lead poisoning you’ll never know the real potential that your child could achieve,” Medley said. “My youngest used to talk really well, he articulated himself. Now, due to lead poisoning, my son has a really bad stutter. He does not want to talk. As a parent, you feel like you failed your child.”

Medley receives assistance from the federal Section 8 housing program, which works with local organizations to ensure low-income families have access to housing. Through the program, her family moved to her current home on Pond Street in 2019. She says no one was aware the apartment was “infested with lead.”

Medley said the property was purchased by Hamzy Hidais of Brooklyn in 2020. Hidais did not respond to a request for comment asking if he was aware of the presence of lead in the property prior to acquiring it.

For Medley, the DOH registry is too similar to a local rental registry program that already requires Syracuse owners of one and two-family homes to be in compliance with the local property code. Syracuse Open Data records show only 3,856 of the 8,380 qualifying properties have a valid rental registry certificate, which owners have to renew every three years for a fee of $150.

Syracuse property owners can be subject to a fine of $150, 15 days in jail, or both if they don’t apply for a rental registry certificate.

“I will continue to advocate for families to be free from lead in Syracuse, but we already have a rental registry and it doesn’t do much,” Medley said.

Sonal Jessel, the director of policy at We Act For Environmental Justice, said the DOH program is simply too vague at this point.

“There is just not a lot of detail there,” she said. “ What constitutes a lead hazard is not very clear. How are they going to do those inspections? And when will they have to be performed?”

Clary said DOH plans to work with local health departments that have existing rental registry and inspection programs to develop the state’s rental registry, but did not answer inquiries regarding the potential timelines by which a property owner would have to comply with the registry or what entities could perform a lead inspection. Clary reiterated DOH is in the process of devising some of these guidelines.

Jessel said legislation like the Lead Based Paint Disclosure Act, a bill in the State Legislature, could help ease some concerns and facilitate the cataloging of the properties. The bill would require property sellers or landlords to disclose the presence of lead in structures built prior to 1978 at the point of sale or rent. It would also allow prospective buyers or renters to test for lead prior to signing a lease or finalizing a purchase. The bill has been seeking committee approval since 2022, according to the state’s legislation tracker.

“Right now, people are moving into these homes not knowing that there is a presence and a threat of lead and the number one cause of lead poisoning is peeling paint or paint from construction,” Jessel said.

Jessel said the bill would make it easier for the DOH’s rental registry to account for potential hazards given that there would be testing conducted at the point of sale if the legislation is enacted.  

“Right now, there is no incentive for a seller or lessor to actually test for lead in their homes,” Jessel said.

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