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Rental enforcement lags in Detroit’s lead hot spots

Christine MacDonald
The Detroit News

While the state’s worst child lead poisoning problem deepened in Detroit, the city’s rental inspectors focused ticketing of landlords for lead paint violations primarily in just two neighborhoods, virtually ignoring other areas where children were getting sick at much higher rates.

Tanisha Smith cleans off lead paint in her Detroit rental. A year before she moved in, the home was inspected. The landlord was ordered to fix the peeling paint, according to records. But the city didn’t follow up with tickets when the home’s owner failed to act.

That disparity means rental homes in Detroit’s lead hot spots — ZIP codes where kids are most frequently testing positive for high levels of the dangerous metal — received scant attention from inspectors that experts say are best positioned to combat the problem.

A Detroit News analysis found that 65 percent of the approximately 4,100 lead-related rental tickets written to landlords in 2016 and 2017 were clustered in two ZIP codes: 48221 and 48224, primarily the Bagley and East English Village neighborhoods.

The two ZIP codes with the highest rate of poisoned kids, however, had only 3 percent of lead tickets, according to city data and 2016 state testing results.

Renters such as Tanisha Smith, 36, say their families have suffered from the uneven enforcement.

Her 2-year-old daughter tested positive for lead poisoning last summer in a west side rental — near Redford in the 48239 ZIP code — that a private lead expert later found had chipping paint and other hazards, including lead dust covering her daughter’s bedroom carpet. Lead paint commonly used in homes before 1978, ingested from chips or dust, is considered the top culprit for lead poisoning in young children.

A year before Smith moved in, a city inspector ordered the landlord to fix the home’s peeling paint and get a mandatory lead inspection, according to city records. But the city never followed up with tickets when the home’s owner failed to act.

“This is a 2-year-old who has lead poisoning who could have all kinds of complications,” said Smith, who didn’t know before her daughter’s poisoning that the city required landlords to have rentals inspected for lead hazards. “And this landlord has basically gone about his business.

“I feel if the city of Detroit would have enforced the law, I probably wouldn’t be going through what I am going through.”

David Bell, director of the Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department, admitted his inspectors should have ticketed Smith’s landlord; he blamed an antiquated computer system for the lack of follow-up.

“We did not issue tickets, that’s something I acknowledge we should have done,” Bell said. “When it comes to rental properties in the city of Detroit, we know we have to make it better.”

Tanisha Smith’s daughter Cadence, 2, tested positive for lead poisoning last summer. A lead expert later found their west side rental had hazards such as chipping paint and lead dust.

Limited resources

Under Mayor Mike Duggan over the last two years, the city focused its rental enforcement in the two established neighborhoods of Bagley and East English Village because Bell said they had “strong community support” in those areas and didn’t want to stretch limited resources citywide while they tried to rebuild a department that had ignored rental conditions for decades.

It left wide swaths of the city — particularly areas where more kids are being poisoned — with little oversight of landlords. Rentals are required to be registered and pass city safety inspections and, if the home was built before 1978, a private inspection to make sure there are no lead hazards. Ticketing, which typically can bring fines from $500 to $1,000, is the most common enforcement hammer the city uses to hold landlords accountable.

The city launched a new effort to register and inspect all rentals, starting with six ZIP codes, on Feb. 1. The effort followed an October 2017 Detroit News report that found many families were being evicted from unregistered and uninspected homes. Often, they had withheld rent to compel landlords to fix dangerous conditions.

The city estimates it has registered 90 percent of rentals in the first targeted ZIP code, the east side’s 48215, as of earlier this month.

Yet none of the six ZIP codes in which the city is focusing its initial efforts are among the top five for the percentage of kids testing positive for lead in 2016.

“It’s really surprising that they are not focusing on the most challenged areas,” said Lyke Thompson, director of the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State University and project coordinator of the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative Detroit/Wayne County that tackles lead issues. “It’s so dangerous, it’s poisoning large percentages of children.”

High blood lead levels can have severe and lasting effects on children, leading to developmental problems, behavioral disorders and learning difficulties, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A 2013 study of Detroit Public School students found high blood lead levels before age 6 “were strongly associated with poor academic achievement” in later grades.

In 2010, Detroit mandated yearly lead inspections for rentals, a requirement that experts called one of the nation’s toughest, although city officials admit it was not enforced for the vast majority of landlords.

Meanwhile, the percentage of children testing positive for elevated lead levels was rising from 7.5 percent in 2015 to 8.8 percent in 2016, according to the latest data. For comparison, the percentage of kids with elevated levels Flint was 2.4 percent and in Highland Park it was 14 percent. Statewide, the average was 3.6 percent.

The Detroit ZIP code with the highest concentration of lead poisonings is 48206, an area west of the John C. Lodge freeway and north of West Grand Boulevard. In that ZIP code, which was the epicenter of Detroit’s 1967 urban uprising, 22.2 percent of children 6 and younger have elevated blood lead levels.

Next highest is 48214, which runs from Belle Isle on the Detroit River to Warren Avenue, where 16.4 percent of children have elevated levels, according to state data.

In those two ZIP codes, city inspectors wrote just 125 lead-related tickets in 2016 and 2017.

Inspectors wrote 20 times more lead tickets — more than 2,600 — in two ZIP codes, 48221 and 48224, where the rate of lead poisoning among kids was less than 8 percent.

What’s the driving force?

The lack of landlord enforcement in lead hot spots troubles community activist Debra Taylor.

“It’s clear that health results and impact wasn’t the driving force.” said Taylor, co-founder of We the People of Detroit, a nonprofit working on neighborhood issues. “It looks like (they ticket) areas that are desirable for development and gentrification.”

“The role of government is to protect the health and welfare of all its citizens.”

Drew Sygit, president of the Real Estate Investors Association of Oakland, said he understands the city’s selective strategy on rental enforcement.

“Unfortunately, they have to start somewhere,” he said. “They are trying to protect those areas.”

The hardest-hit lead poisoned ZIP codes have had lead problems for years, including 48206. It’s had some of the highest levels in Detroit since at least 2007, according to state data.

That’s where Janene Pollock lived in a rental 12 years ago. The paint and drywall were so brittle, she said, they fell off to reveal wood supports in the walls. At 2 years old, her daughter’s blood lead levels tested at 11 micrograms per deciliter, more than double the level at which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says public health actions should be initiated.

Today, 14-year-old Jayla has learning disabilities so severe that Janene felt she needed to homeschool her. Jayla struggled with the large class sizes in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, her mother said.

“She can’t stay focused,” Pollock said. “It’s hard to see your baby struggle.”

She blames neglectful landlords and the city for not doing more.

“It’s too expensive to make sure houses are safe?” Pollock said. “We are expendable. Our children are expendable.”

City to address areas

Arthur Jemison, the city’s director of the Housing & Revitalization Department, told The News that the city will pay more attention to the neighborhoods hardest hit by lead poisoning.

“Lead is a menace in industrial cities like ours,” Jemison said. “In the past, there hasn’t been as much coordination. We need to be targeting in areas that have higher lead reporting.”

He couldn’t answer why the city hadn’t focused rental enforcement in lead hot spots previously.

City officials said some of the top five ZIP codes with the highest percentages of lead poisoning will be included in the next round of areas where the city focuses inspections. Those are expected to be announced in July.

The city is also starting other efforts in the hardest-hit areas. That includes door-to-door outreach to educate families and test children, an effort funded by $1.25 million approved by the City Council last month, said Dr. Joneigh S. Khaldun, the Detroit Health Department director.

In addition, the city will halt demolitions this summer in the five ZIP codes with the highest rates of child lead poisoning. A city report last year suggested a possible link between nearby demolitions and high lead levels.

‘You are killing landlords’

There’s no indication that children in rented homes are more likely to have lead poisoning than those in owner-occupied homes, city officials said. But the city can regulate rentals and ticket landlords who don’t comply. A majority of the city’s housing, 54 percent, is renter-occupied.

Landlords, however, complain that increased regulation is pushing them out of the business. An initial lead inspection ranges between $450 and $700, not including the cost to address hazardous paint. The city requires annual follow-up inspections that average about $250 to make sure the lead hazards haven’t returned.

Detroit landlord Heidi Brinkley said she had to wait six months to find a company to inspect her rental because the firms were so behind. She wishes the city would waive lead inspections when renters in a unit are all adults.

“It’s overkill. It definitely makes me not want to invest in the city,” Brinkley said. “You are killing landlords.

“I can’t chase my tenants and chase the lead paint inspectors, too.”

Although the city is “basically building back from scratch” its rental enforcement, it can’t afford to let areas of the city go without it, said Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress in Washington, D.C., who has studied rental housing regulations across the country.

“You have a whole city to deal with,” Mallach said. “This has to do with the fundamental health and well-being of residents. Getting a handle on this is incredibly important, but is going to be incredibly difficult.”

Increased enforcement doesn’t guarantee better conditions, city officials say.

Even though the Bagley and East English Village neighborhoods were blanketed with tickets, it didn’t work, said the city’s Bell. Nearly 78 percent of the tickets issued — where owners also were found guilty — have gone unpaid. It’s not clear what percentage followed through with an inspection.

‘A day-to-day battle’

For Tanisha Smith, the effort to get more landlords to comply is too late. She’s monitoring the health of her daughter, Cadence, and giving her lots of fruits, vegetables and an iron supplement.

“It’s a day-to-day battle; you never know what her progress will be,” Smith said.

She spent months cleaning every other day with a mixture of Palmolive and Pine-Sol before her landlord fixed the lead hazards, through painting and other repairs.

“You do everything you can to protect your child from different things and you think the house you live in is safe,” Smith said. “It’s a really a scary feeling.”

Renter rights on lead

Laws are in place to protect tenants and make sure their rentals are safe:

■In Detroit, landlords must register their rentals and pass city inspections, including one for lead hazards done by a certified inspector if the homes were built before 1978.

■Federal law also mandates that landlords disclose all known lead hazards to tenants at the time of lease or lease renewal.

■City ordinance requires that landlords not evict tenants to avoid complying with the law or take “any retaliatory action” against a renter who reports a lead paint hazard to the landlord or city.

■It is a crime in Michigan if a landlord knew a rental contained lead paint hazards and a child later is found to have elevated blood lead levels. Penalties include up to 93 days in jail and/or fines up to $5,000 for first-time offenders. Fines increase to $10,000 for subsequent offenses.

■Renters who believe their landlords have not gotten required inspections can call the city to schedule an inspection by calling the Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department at (313) 628-2451.

■There are nonprofit law firms who represent tenants in court, typically when they face eviction involving disputes over the conditions of rentals. They include Lakeshore Legal Aid, (888) 783-8190, or Michigan Legal Services, (313) 964-4130.

Source: City of Detroit Property Maintenance Code and Clear Corps/Detroit