Be Tougher on Syracuse Landlords Who Allow Child Lead Poisoning (Editorial Board Opinion)

A year ago, Syracuse created a new weapon to combat childhood lead poisoning. The city government passed an ordinance that makes peeling paint a code violation as serious as faulty wiring or broken porch steps. Property owners can be fined if they do not seal the lead with paint.

A year later, the city has made some progress. Code enforcement officers have issued more than 3,000 lead violations and made more than 1,600 drugs compliant. This is just a drop in the ocean in a city of 9,000 rental properties – but it’s a start.

It’s also clear that city government doesn’t have powerful enough tools to force landlords to do the bare minimum to prevent another generation of children from being exposed to lead poisoning — and causing irreparable damage to their brains, their ability to learn, and their personalities.

Various efforts to attack the underlying problem by city government, Onondaga County government, non-profit groups and charities are being thwarted by unethical landlords who don’t care that they are permanently harming children.

Small fines for violating city ordinances or failing to list their property on the city’s rental registry are just another cost of doing business. Dazzling prosecutions by the district attorney and state attorney general provide examples of some bad actors — only for them to appear again on the city’s list of lead paint law violators.

Meanwhile, nothing has changed for the children living in their abandoned properties.

Writers Michelle Breidenbach and Douglas Doughty went to a few Syracuse rental homes recently to check on children affected by lead paint poisoning:

Here’s what we found: Children are detained in school. Their speech was delayed. They suffer from anemia. They cannot understand what their parents and teachers say. Some people feel anxious and distrustful of new people and situations.

The city’s major mitigation campaign hinges on landlords complying with city ordinances that require them to register their rental properties every three years and require them to undergo an interior inspection for hazards such as chipping paint. The problem is that only 60% of the city’s 9,000 rental properties are registered. The other 40% represents a larger number of children potentially poisoned by lead paint. How much more? We don’t know.

The federal government banned the use of lead in paint in 1978. Most housing in the city is at least that old. Completely removing lead paint is expensive and labor-intensive, requiring licensed contractors wearing hazmat suits and respirators. But no one is asking landlords to do this level of remediation. In many cases, they simply need to be painted over lead paint to seal out the poison. This is easier said than done when rental properties are poorly maintained in the first place.

For example, Breidenbach and Doughty visited an apartment where lead paint was just one of many serious problems: the windows were broken, the grass was knee-deep and there was a hole downstairs in the kitchen floor.

City code inspectors flag homes as unsafe. But it takes months to declare a house unfit. Property owners can circumvent the city’s efforts to close them by transferring properties to LLCs or selling them. The city believes restarting the clock is in the process — a practice the Syracuse Tenants Union has spoken out against in a new report. The group sees no such provision in the city code.

The Rental Registration Act also provides for a fine of $100 per day for non-compliance and possible criminal prosecution. The city has filed three lawsuits over code violations. More delinquent landlords should be prosecuted.

What else can the government do? Make fines more severe. Withholding public rental subsidies. Cancellation of rental registrations. Prevent bad landlords from applying again to the rental register.

In the end, it won’t be a fair fight if the city plays by the rules and predatory landlords violate them without facing consequences. If landlords cannot or do not want to provide tenants with a safe place to live, they must be evicted by any legal means.

“These landlords live a good life. They make us live in poverty and filth,” said one Margaret Street tenant of a notorious Syracuse landlord.

She’s not wrong.

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