By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Peter Vallone may boast that his City Council passed its budget on time, but what the Speaker accomplished in efficiency could be totally trashed by his last-minute maneuvering that threatens to literally poison children citywide. In an effort to deliver a favor to the real estate industry, Vallone is planning to tank a widely supported lead-paint bill in favor of a landlord-friendly measure.
Vallone has drafted a bill that gives landlords a dangerously generous amount of time to remove lead paint, allows them in some cases to abandon safety standards, and limits legal recourse for families whose children are poisoned. "This is a disaster, worse than anything we'd ever imagined," says Andrew Goldberg, an attorney for the New York Public Interest Research Group who has worked for years on lead-paint litigation. "It turns public health on its head."
Late last week, before Vallone and the mayor shook hands on a budget deal, the Speaker appeared poised to pressure councilmembers into supporting his lead-paint scheme by threatening to take away their "member items" money for projects in each council district that typically reward loyal constituents or pay for popular programs. Fierce opposition by lead-paint protection advocates, including some councilmembers, persuaded the Speaker to hold off on linking lead paint with the budget, convincing him that such an approach was too baldly political. Even so, Vallone staffers insist the bill will have a hearing and a vote within a matter of days. At press time, sources said the hearing was likely to be held Friday, June 11. A Vallone spokesperson would comment only that "we are still in discussion and do not have a bill yet."
The Vallone-directed bill was drafted in opposition to a measure introduced by Manhattan councilmember Stanley Michels, who called for aggressive lead-paint "remediation" in apartment buildings, schools, public playgrounds, and day care centers. Vallone's bill addresses only apartments and allows landlords in some instances to ignore the city's Department of Health standards in removing lead paint; in fact, Vallone's plan would encourage substandard remediation.
Under the draft bill, when a city inspector finds that a landlord has peeling lead paint in an apartment occupied by a child under six years old, the landlord has 21 days to "clean up." During that time, landlords need not follow strict DOH guidelines, which spell out procedures for sealing off lead-contaminated rooms, wet-scraping the affected area, thoroughly cleaning up, and wipe-testing by laboratories to ensure that lead dust and particles have indeed been removed. (Children become lead poisoned not only by eating paint chips but also by breathing lead dust.) Landlords who fail to do that have another 30 days to correct the situation, but by then, they must follow DOH standards.
"It's absurd," says Micheal McKee, associate director of the New York Tenants & Neighbors Coalition. "This gives landlords an inducement to do a quick-and-dirty job, on the threat that if they don't, they have to comply with the health code." Unlike Michels's version, Vallone's draft bill applies only to paint that is actually peeling; does nothing to address problems that lead to peeling paint, like water damage; and prohibits dangerous dry-scraping of paint but provides no sanctions for landlords who use that method.
The Vallone plan's central fault, opponents say, is a two-tiered system that gives landlords their most coveted win: it forbids housing inspectors from writing a formal notice of violation upon first discovering peeling lead paint, allowing a violation only if the problem is not remedied. Owners say such a provision is essential because such a notice could profoundly increase their liability in civil cases brought on behalf of lead-paint poisoned children.
Opponents are outraged not only by the substance of Vallone's measure but also by the process that created it: several of his staffers held a daylong meeting last week with leaders and a lawyer from the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents the city's largest landlords, to draft the bill. Present were RSA president Joe Strasburg, who worked as Vallone's top aide before going to the RSA in 1994 and who wrote the current lead-paint law in 1982, and RSA government-affairs director Frank Ricci. Neither returned calls for this story. The only advocate for stronger measures Vallone allowed at the meeting was Michels, who has been tremendously pressured to go along with the Vallone bill, and to signal his support to other councilmembers.
At press time Monday, Michels was reluctant to comment until a final version is drafted. "We'll sit down and negotiate and, depending on what the draft looks like and how terrible it is and what we can do about it, we'll see. All I can say now is that our objective is to make sure that we reduce substantially the number of kids that are lead poisoned, and that has to be done by putting in a law that is doable."
Michels's bill introduced in 1997 has the support of 34 of the council's 51 members and was expected to pass easily, but Vallone never let it out of committee. Instead, he straddled the issue for two years and in 1998 made lead-paint protection along with other tenant issues central themes in his gubernatorial campaign. Vallone's bid failed miserably, and now his eye is on a mayoral race, an ambition that needs the backing of the city's real estate industry.
Eager to please the RSA and to appease the mayor's office, which wants weaker lead-paint rules in part because many city-owned buildings are affected, Vallone rushed his measure, citing a June 30 deadline on a court-ordered settlement. Goldberg, however, points out that the plaintiffs in that settlement offered to extend the deadline until October 15 to accommodate debate.
"They want to orchestrate a crisis, but it's not real," says Matthew Chachère, staff attorney for the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, which represents plaintiffs in a long-standling class-action suit regarding lead poisoning. "If they felt good about what they were doing, they wouldn't do it this way."
While politicians play with lead-paint laws, children continue to be poisoned. At any given time, there are about 30,000 lead-poisoned children under the age of seven citywide. Each year, between 1200 and 1500 more become poisoned. Lead poisoning is entirely preventable but insidious if not halted; symptoms are subtle, but effects are severe and long-lasting. Lead-poisoned children can suffer central nervous system damage, learning disabilities, and, in extreme cases, coma and even death.
Most lead-paint poisoned children live in the city's "lead belt," with some of the highest percentages found in Fort Greene, Bushwick, Jamaica, Mott Haven, and Washington Heights. A 1996 health department chart shows that more than 80 percent of poisoned children are black and Latino; only 6 percent white. "If this chart were reversed," says Goldberg, "we would have settled this issue years ago."