The Detroit Land Bank sells thousands of cheap homes without disclosing the potential hazards of lead-based paint. Remediation has been slow.
LaShawna Anthony needed to move into a new home in the summer of 2020 to get herself and her newborn out of a toxic romantic relationship. Instead of renting a new house, she bought a home from the Detroit Land Bank Authority and fixed it up herself.
The land bank sells much of its inventory for cheap. It only cost Anthony $1,000 plus a few hundred in closing fees to purchase a house on Steel Street on Detroit’s northwest side. The house was, predictably, in rough shape. It had to be completely renovated and it needed a new roof.
She bought the home in July and, with the help of family members, started tearing out walls and ceilings, making steady progress by maxing out her credit card. She says she moved in towards the end of the year. Her son Elijah lived with his dad for two months until the house was habitable for both of them. Her three other children — now ages 10, 20 and 21 — moved in over the following few months.
Elijah’s blood lead level was slightly higher than 3.5 micrograms per deciliter, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies as high, recommending regular doctor visits and testing for potential lead exposure. Two months later, Anthony had Elijah’s blood tested again and his blood lead level had more than doubled.
Detroit’s old homes provide an opportunity for residents but also pose a risk. Demand is high for truly affordable homes in Detroit. For people like Anthony, desperate for housing, the threat of lead exposure has to be balanced with other threats like homelessness.
The effect of lead poisoning on children is well established and can be devastating, possibly resulting in irreversible cognitive effects and other health issues. It is especially dangerous for children under the age of 6 who can experience lifelong developmental delays.
In Detroit, kids have higher lead poisoning rates than the rest of the state and country. The primary way kids come in contact with lead is through paint in old homes.
“I would have never known, if I didn’t try to apply for a loan, that his lead levels were high,” Anthony said.
After Elijah was tested, Anthony received guidance from her physician and the city health department on foods and supplements to help lower the amount of lead in his body. She also joined the Detroit Lead Parent Advocacy Group, which advocates for parents of children with elevated lead levels.
Anthony said she was completely unaware of the dangers of lead poisoning and did not know that demolition of walls and windows could create a hazard. She has since quit all interior demolition work.
Many homes, little diligence
The land bank is Detroit’s largest property owner and a primary source of old, unrenovated homes full of lead paint entering back into use. It has sold nearly 13,300 homes through its Auction and Own It Now programs, often selling for as little as $1,000.
The city does not inspect these properties before sale, allowing it to be ignorant of the true extent of lead saturation in these homes and any danger to children who might live there. Discovering the extent of lead contamination and dealing with it becomes a problem for the new owners.
Lead-based paint wasn’t outlawed for residential use until 1978, but lead experts say it’s most prevalent in homes built before 1940. A home is also more likely to be a lead danger if it hasn’t been renovated, because old paint might be peeling off and spreading throughout the house.
The majority of land bank properties are the leftovers from years of county tax auction sales — whatever did not get sold ends up there. According to spokesperson Antonisha Smith, the average construction date for land bank homes sold by the land bank is 1927. The homes are in notoriously poor condition, often deteriorating rapidly once they become part of its inventory and increasing the risk of exposure to lead.
The tie between lead and land bank homes has been known for years. A 2017 report from the city’s own health department found a link between demolition of land bank homes and elevated blood lead levels of children in nearby homes. Two years later, a report from the University of Michigan found that children who lived in Detroit homes often bought from the land bank directly or from speculators selling homes from the Wayne County tax foreclosure auction had elevated levels of lead in their blood.
Smith said the land bank hasn’t done any lead inspections on homes in its inventory. Every sale is accompanied with the disclaimer that it has “no knowledge of lead-based paint or lead-based paint hazards in the housing.”
Instead, it provides a 13-page EPA-produced booklet — required for any home built before 1978 sold in the U.S. — about the hazards of lead, and how to check for and reduce its presence.
Federal regulations require sellers to disclose any lead hazards discovered in homes built before 1978. But sellers don’t have to disclose the hazards they haven’t tested for, creating what the U-M researchers call a “disclosure loophole.”
Land bank spokesperson Alyssa Strickland said in an email that the authority “informs every buyer about the potential for lead-based paint before they close on the sale of their property” through the lead booklet and disclosure. She added that buyers are expected to renovate their homes before moving in.
“All our Auction and Own It Now structures are sold ‘as is’ and are in blighted condition, not ready for families to move in,” Strickland said. “All buyers are required to renovate their house and work with our Compliance team and the City’s Buildings, Safety, Engineering, and Environmental Department along the way to make sure the property becomes safe and livable.”
That booklet may not be enough warning for people like Anthony, according to Nick Leonard, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center.
“I think it’s safe to say that the pamphlet is not a very effective tool to communicate the risks,” he said. “One basic thing they could do is more robust public education beyond just the minimum federal requirements of handing people a pamphlet, along with a heavy folder of documents that they’re getting in any real estate transaction, where it’s easy to just pass over things.”
He added that the land bank needs to have a higher standard of lead disclosure as well.
“What the land bank is doing is essentially the bare minimum,” he said. “Instead of just putting their heads in the sand and saying we don’t know of any lead-based paint hazards, they should actually do inspections.”
CDC Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention
EPA lead paint in housing and reducing exposure in the home
State of Michigan Lead Safe Program
City of Detroit Lead Prevention and Intervention Program and lead testing
Get support: DLEAD parent group
Too little help, too slowly
For Detroiters who live in homes where lead exposure is a problem, the city does have a lead remediation program. The Lead Hazard Reduction and Intervention Program is only available for certain ZIP codes however and has been slow to roll out.
The $9.7-million program funded by HUD awards grants to homeowners to remediate lead-based paint and prioritizes households with children under 6 with positive blood test for lead exposure. It was launched in spring of 2019 and had planned to reach 455 households by the end of next year. The average grant is worth $32,000 and can cover repairs beyond lead like a roof replacement — something Anthony still desperately needed.
Anthony doesn’t live in a ZIP code that would allow her to participate in the program. But after a reporter reached out, the city said it would consider whether it could include Anthony. The city seems to have made an exception in her case and eventually enrolled her last August. But no work has started yet, meaning Anthony’s home is in nearly as much disrepair as it was when her son was first exposed to lead.
The program is unlikely to meet its deadline to spend all its funding, even after receiving a five-month extension to May 2025. It’s completed less than one-quarter of its goal and is looking to reduce the benchmark number.
“It’s very ambitious, almost unrealistic, for us to think that we’re gonna be able to reach those 455 units,” said Karina Odom, the city’s project director for the Detroit LeadSafe Housing Program.
The slow down, Odom said, has been due to a combination of COVID-19 shutdowns, supply chain delays, a shortage of contractors and bureaucratic delays baked into large federal programs. The city needs to verify applicants’ income and ownership, confirm a positive lead test, inspect the home, create a risk assessment, hire contractors to come out and create a scope of work — all before construction can even begin.
The city’s Housing and Revitalization Department said it typically takes between six months to a year from approval to completion of work.
When Anthony enrolled in the program, she had already knocked down some walls. She also hadn’t pulled any permits for her work, which scared off city inspectors who didn’t want to risk liability by mixing permitted with non-permitted work.
Anthony says she only needs to finish a few final details, but to her the work seems nonsensical. Inspectors have required her install drywall patches over exposed wiring, even if it would be later demolished, as well as cover electrical sockets and put fixtures over lights, which are typically finishes done at the tail end of a renovation.
“Once we come in and do the lead work, we would like it to be as final as possible,” said Faris Fakhouri, the city’s chief of housing compliance inspections. “We don’t want to do lead work, and then somebody starts cutting into walls or something right when we leave, and then a child gets exposed.”
The constant back and forth has left Anthony exasperated. “The whole process has been very confusing,” she said. “And I can’t go through another winter like this.”
In the meantime, her roof is covered by a loose black tarp. Rain cascades down the main stairwell whenever it rains. The walls and floors are unfinished. Several walls still have peeling lead paint.
She believes she’s finally close to having the house prepped. An inspector recently gave Anthony a “rough clearance” over the summer, meaning all the internal electrical and plumbing is complete.
Elijah is now 3 years old. Anthony said after his blood test showed lead exposure, she’s been trying to feed him healthy foods, cleans the home often, and avoids disturbing the walls with lead paint. Given all the time and money she’s spent on the house so far and the difficulty of moving, she’s never given much thought to relocating.
Elijah got his blood tested for lead again two weeks ago. The blood test came back showing his exposure was 3.7 micrograms per deciliter — better, yet still unsafe.
Correction: This article originally stated that the City of Detroit got a two-year extension on its lead reduction program. It now correctly states it was a five-month extension through May 2025. It also originally stated that Anthony moved in “right away” after buying the house in July. But Anthony said the house was unlivable at the time and moved in several months later.
Reach AARON MONDRY at [email protected] or 313-403-7221. Sign up to receive it.
NINA IGNACZAK is the founder and editor of Planet Detroit, which covers environmental issues in Detroit and Michigan. Reach her at [email protected].