Darlene Medley joins in a chant with demonstrators outside her home on Pond Street in Syracuse in August, protesting the lack of remediation for lead in the house she rents. Two of her children have had high levels of lead. Credit: Mike Greenlar

The city of Syracuse began enforcing its new lead abatement ordinance Monday, two years after it was approved.

City officials hope the ordinance will help it easier find houses with lead violations, but safe housing advocates say the ordinance doesn’t yet go far enough. 

“We are hopeful that the city is beginning to take responsibility for the health of its children dealing with lead poisoning, but we are very skeptical of the process,” said Stephanie Kenific, a housing organizer with the Syracuse Tenants Organizing for Power (STOP!) Coalition.

The ordinance allows the city’s Lead Hazard Reduction Office to inspect houses based on complaints by renters and property owners and to proactively check houses on the city’s rental registry. Inspectors will look for deteriorated paint and significant traces of lead contamination in the soil, according to the city’s senior public information officer Brooke Schneider. 

The ordinance also includes tenant protections. Tenants do not have to pay rent if they are relocated during remediation work and their belongings must be protected during the process. Tenants can also terminate their lease without having to make future rent payments if remediation work has not been finished within 60 days or if the property doesn’t pass a clearance examination. 

Landlords who fail to comply face fines determined by the city’s Code Enforcement office.

The city has earmarked $8.6 million to use on lead abatement, with $4.1 million coming from a 2019 federal grant program and another $4.5 million from federal stimulus funds. City officials say they plan to  remediate lead in 198 homes with the money left from the 2019 grant by October 2023. The federal stimulus allocation will help address lead poisoning in another 144 homes, Schneider said.

That money has helped the city’s code enforcement officers get trained on how to identify lead-based paint in homes and child care facilities. More inspectors have also been certified to collect lead dust samples and use X-ray fluorescence devices to identify lead-based paint in homes, Schneider said. 

At least 1 in 10 children tested for lead in their blood has had elevated blood-lead levels for the last 10 years. Children who have 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood are considered to have elevated blood lead levels. In 2020, fewer children were tested and the percentage of children who showed elevated blood-lead levels dropped to 9%. 

Lead exposure can hamper brain development in children, reduce a child’s attention span and reduce educational attainment, according to the World Health Organization.

State health authorities have said in the past lead poison hazards can be typically found in cities with an old housing stock built before New York banned the use of lead paint in 1970. In Syracuse, 91% of rental housing was built before 1980, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

Fair remains skeptical about the city’s ability to enforce the ordinance, particularly in neighborhoods with low socioeconomic means.

“The big challenge for the tenants is getting someone to come out and inspect the property,” Oceanna Fair said.

That’s why Fair and other advocates have placed so much emphasis on the public having access to the city’s rental registry. This is something city officials said is being addressed.

“The city is working on an interactive map that would allow constituents to search by address or landlord name,” said Syracuse Division of Code Enforcement Director Jake Dishaw. “The map would display all parcels that we currently have as requiring a rental registry, which is currently about 9,000.”

Onondaga County Health Department data show lead poisoning disproportionately affects people of color and people living in poverty. The highest concentration of children with elevated blood levels is in zip code 13205, a neighborhood in the city’s South Side. 

The neighborhoods most affected are in the South, West and North sides, where housing is affordable but also often in worse condition, said Palmer Harvey, co-founder of the Syracuse Tenants Union. 

“Landlords in those neighborhoods don’t care about things like a security deposit,” Harvey said. “They just want the money. They know their properties are in poor condition.”

Families for Lead Freedom Now said in five cases this year, landlords have retaliated after lead was found in their properties by shutting off heat and water to tenants. She worries the ordinance doesn’t go far enough to protect those tenants or others who could be evicted.

Even Fair, who has dedicated time to learn about lead remediation work and the intricacies of the city’s ordinance, has found it to be challenging to contract crews to address the presence of lead at her own house.

For instance, her home’s porch remains non-compliant. A contractor failed to fully remediate the deck and was paid $17,000 to complete its remediation by the city, she said. That fix was scheduled for April of this year. It hasn’t yet happened, she said.

“The ordinance doesn’t give the Division of Code Enforcement or the County Health Department any teeth,” Fair said. “We’re going to keep on going through with the status quo. If we continue to give landlords and contractors a slap on the wrist; if we continue to make fines minimal, the process is going to to repeat itself.”

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Follow Eddie Velazquez @ezvelazquez.

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