Detroit proposes changes to city’s lead enforcement code; activists sound alarm

Proposed changes to the City of Detroit’s rental ordinance governing lead paint inspections were approved by the Public Health & Safety Standing Committee Monday and will head to City Council for final approval next week.

Among the most controversial are loosened requirements on how often the city will require landlords to perform lead risk assessments in rental properties known to contain lead — from every year to every three years in homes with temporary controls.

The changes were proposed by the city’s Buildings, Safety Engineering, and Environmental Department (BSEED) to increase compliance with the city’s rental ordinance, according to a statement from BSEED Director Dave Bell. 

“The ultimate goal here is code compliance, most importantly, making rental properties lead-safe to protect children and families,” Bell wrote in a statement to Planet Detroit. “These changes will help us achieve that by providing carrot-and-stick incentives for landlords to come into compliance.” 

Among the carrots: Landlords who show “good faith” efforts by performing interim solutions like painting over or encasing lead paint, or removing it altogether, will be subject to less frequent risk assessments, which can be expensive. Among the sticks: higher fines and possible misdemeanor charges for landlords who do not comply and are found to have a lead-poisoned child inside of a rental.

The city’s current ordinance, adopted in 2010, requires a full lead risk assessment on properties with interim control measures or encapsulation every year. The new proposal would require a less-onerous visual inspection be performed every year by a third-party Environmental Protection Agency-certified lead inspector.

Interim controls include temporary measures landlords are required to take once they have found lead in their rental unit, like special cleaning, repairs, and temporary containment such as painting. A lead risk assessment is an in-depth assessment that tests dust, soil and paint; a visual inspection is a less-stringent inspection that visually identifies potential hazards but does not identify the presence of lead.

Under the proposal, BSEED and the Detroit Health Department would work together to report elevated blood lead levels (EBLLs) in rental properties every year so that council can know of any significant uptick in lead poisoning in rental properties.

“We think these are all common-sense modifications to the ordinance that will result in greater safety, better living conditions for tenants, and reduce financial burdens on responsible landlords,” Bell said in the statement. 

Detroit’s rental ordinance requires landlords to maintain health and safety standards on their properties to protect tenants. Lead is a key concern because of the high risk of lead poisoning in Detroit’s older housing stock — the vast majority of which was built before Congress banned lead paint in 1978. 

Lead is a potent neurotoxin with irreversible effects. Exposure can lead to lifelong cognitive and behavioral problems. There is no safe blood level for lead. A 2009 cost-benefit analysis showed that every dollar spent on lead-based paint control returns $17–$221 in savings through increased lifetime earnings, tax revenue, and decreased costs related to special education, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and crime. More than a thousand children are found to have EBLLs every year on average.


Note: The 2020 decrease is likely due to reduced testing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Eastside resident Cierra Cole spoke during public comment at Monday’s health and safety committee meeting. She has a son who was lead-poisoned and believes he was likely exposed in her rental home. 

Cole told Planet Detroit that she diligently cleans her house using protocols to reduce lead dust and works with her landlord to address lead hazards as she finds them in her home. Often she hires a babysitter to remove her kids from the house during repairs so that they won’t risk being exposed to lead dust. With this work, she has been able to bring her son’s blood lead level below the CDC’s five micrograms per deciliter (µg/ml) action level. 

Cole said she realizes that lead is an ongoing issue not only in her home but across the entire city.

“This house is always gonna have lead in it,” she said. “Unless [my landlord] gets money from the city, or through somebody or something to clear the house of lead — he would literally have to tear it down and rebuild it.”

While Cole would like to see the city continue to require full lead risk assessments annually, she also worries that the expense to landlords could lead to increased rents that she can’t afford.

“If landlords are required to clean up all of this lead themselves and make homes free of lead, they may just decide ultimately not to be a landlord anymore because of how expensive it is going to be,” she said. “Or they may decide to raise the rent from $800 to $1200.” 

But Mary Sue Schottenfels, former executive director of the nonprofit healthy housing advocacy group CLEARCorps Detroit and longtime lead poisoning prevention advocate, told Planet Detroit that more Detroit kids are likely to become lead-poisoned if these changes are adopted. Schottenfels and other lead advocates have been negotiating with BSEED in recent weeks to preserve the annual requirement for risk assessments.

“We as lead advocates are very disappointed that BSEED has weakened the rental registration ordinance by allowing landlords to go three years between risk assessments. This will undoubtedly lead to more lead-poisoned Detroit children,” she said. “Children’s brains rapidly develop between ages of one and three, and exposure to lead hazards at that age has devastating consequences. We believe that rental property owners should have an annual risk assessment, especially when interim controls are used—which are temporary repairs.”

Schottenfels added that lead hazards remedied with interim controls will most likely return within a year in a house built before 1978, and that landlords historically have been slow to make their properties lead-safe unless encouraged to do so by an ordinance.

The cost of complying with Detroit’s rental ordinance is top-of-mind for Detroit landlord Sterling Howard, who owns 150 single-family rental homes across the city.

“Lead is a public health crisis. And I’m not convinced that within the city of Detroit, where I am actively investing, that there is a larger effort to recognize that and to have adequate resources available to address this issue,” Howard told Planet Detroit. “A lot of landlords feel that there is this concerted effort to demonize landlords as being the cause for children becoming lead-poisoned within the city of Detroit. And so all the actions and enforcement around lead seem to be on the backs of landlords.”

Howard would like to see public money be made available to assist landlords in addressing lead hazards in rental units. That may include economic incentives, special financing, or a pot of money like a revolving fund. 

“This amendment is an improvement to the current ordinance,” he said. “Now landlords need policymakers to assist with financial resources and incentives to achieve compliance.”

It’s not clear exactly how many rental units exist in the city. Estimates range widely — from 40,000 using city data to 130,000 based on census information. According to the Detroit Free Press, in 2018, only 6,000 had registered under the city’s rental registry ordinance. The city has struggled to gain compliance with the rental registry ordinance it adopted in 2017. Before that, it had a rental inspection law on the books for decades but didn’t enforce it. More than half of the city’s residents are renters. 

During Monday’s public hearing, callers also voiced concern over other sources of lead exposure not addressed in the ordinance, including lead in water service lines and exposure to lead dust from the demolition of blighted properties. But the Centers for Disease Control says lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust within homes are the most widespread sources of lead exposure to children.

Schottenfels welcomes many of the proposed changes even as she and other lead advocates disagree with BSEED on the reduced frequency for risk assessments in homes with interim controls.

“We are grateful to BSEED for the several ways that they did improve the ordinance — like not allowing landlords to do their own self-inspections, and upping the fines for properties with a lead-poisoned child and no Certificate of Compliance,” she said. “However, without making inspections/risk assessments frequent and regular, it’s going to be really hard to get a handle on this problem and move the needle in the right direction.”

Photo by Nick Hagen.

Planet Detroit’s Solving Lead & Asthma in Detroit series is underwritten, in part, by the Erb Family Foundation. Reporting for this story is supported by Outlier Media’s Detroit Documenters.

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