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Gearing up for lead law


Like it or not, the city's lead law will take effect July 1.

The legislation, which passed six months ago, requires all city rental housing built before 1978 to be tested for lead hazards, such as deteriorated paint and airborne lead particles. "Childhood lead poisoning is one of the most common and preventable pediatric health problems in the United States today," city officials wrote in a 14-page document outlining what the law entails, why it is necessary, and evaluation measures.

But the law remains controversial, especially among some landlords who say remediation costs will bankrupt them. One of the hardest things about her new job, says the city's Neighborhood Empowerment Team director, Molly Clifford, is telling landlords that the law is here to stay. Clifford, whose agency will oversee the program, says her main focus now is preparing landlords for what to expect in the coming months. By June 1, she says, the city will have created a lead hotline, 428-LEAD, and website.

The people immediately affected will be landlords whose Certificates of Occupancy --- verifying that a rental unit is habitable --- are up for renewal this summer. (Previously, C of O's were required every five years, but starting next year, state law requires landlords to get certificates renewed every three years). The law also mandates that the city inspect properties following a tenant complaint.

While most landlords will only have to pass a visual inspection, those in designated high-risk areas in Rochester's inner city must pass a more stringent dust-wipe test if they fail the visual inspection. That's where the health department found children with the highest levels of lead in their blood, Clifford says.

Many landlords will take a financial hit, she acknowledges, but the city has hesitated to place a price tag on remediation costs. There are too many variables, Clifford says: "How big is the property? Are they doing the work themselves or not? What's the extent of the risk? Is it a little bit of peeling paint, or is it full blown?"

Clifford says the city hopes most tenants can remain in their home during the cleanup. "The legislation actually outlines the requirements for what a property owner or contractor would have to do," she says. "They have to seal off the area that's being worked on. There has to be access to the kitchen, bathroom, whatever," she says. If tenants have to relocate, however, landlords must bear the cost. That financial burden shifts to the county if a tenant receives a DSS shelter allowance.

Clifford says inspectors will work with landlords to come up with an appropriate remediation schedule. "We're not going to come right out and slap them with immediate fines," Clifford says. "If there are problems, if there are significant lead risks, and the landlord does not appear to be helping, then we will obviously take enforcement action."

There is some funding available for landlords, Clifford says. The city has about $10 million in grant money available to both eligible landlords and homeowners. The city has also requested $2 million dollars in federal aid, and hope to receive an answer sometime this fall. And on a visit to Rochester earlier this year, Senator Hillary Clinton proposed tax breaks for property owners to help offset lead remediation costs.

Clifford encourages landlords to attend a free eight-hour course that teaches safe lead-cleanup practices. It is being offered by various agencies throughout the region. That way, she says, landlords can save money by cleaning up their own properties and forgoing the cost of a contractor. There is a catch, however, for landlords who clean up their properties after failing the inspection.

"We do the initial inspection," says Clifford. "We do the lead wipes, but once they've had the work done, they need to have an independent inspection saying, 'Yes, this property is lead safe.' And they have to pay for that. And you will hear estimates from $150 to $500 per inspection."

Clifford spends much of her time reassuring those critical of the legislation that while the law is fixed, its components could be revised. During the first year, city officials will monitor the impact of the plan. That will include assessment of the impact on children and on the city's housing stock.

Like many, Clifford and other city officials are concerned that costly cleanups might prompt some landlords to abandon their properties. Already, about 11 percent of the city's houses are vacant.

But Clifford says lead remediation might help Rochester's ailing housing market. "We do believe that in the long run, given that we're bringing improvements to our housing stock, there will be some improvement in the overall housing conditions," she says. "There may be people who are operating sort of on the fringes who may not be keeping up their properties now, and if this forces them out of the market --- I mean, that's not necessarily a good thing, but it may lead to the opportunity for some other property owners who have more resources to come in and take better care of the properties."