Getting the Lead Out

Will the City Council Finally Protect Kids From Toxic Paint?

The day in 1999 when Peter Vallone spoiled the City Council's first chance in decades to pass a law that would really protect kids from toxic lead paint remains one of infamy for the city's tenant movement. The former Speaker tanked a progressive lead safety bill to appease the deep-pocketed real estate lobby, then turned around and slammed through a sleazy backroom bill that basically encouraged building owners to complete dangerous, quick-and-dirty cleanup jobs, while shielding them from suits by victims' families. The decision cost Vallone all credibility with tenants during his mayoral run last year, and for many, offered a bruising account of how money-in-politics can trump even dire public health emergencies.

Since the Vallone bill passed in 1999, kids have continued to be poisoned at an alarming rate. In 2000, nearly 5000 children under six were found to have elevated blood lead levels; almost 700 were seriously poisoned. High blood lead levels cause brain damage, saddling kids with learning disabilities and behavioral problems.

Two weeks ago, Councilmember Bill Perkins introduced a bill that would give kids a second chance—the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Act. The bill, which has 30 sponsors, would dramatically broaden landlords' responsibilities to make apartments lead-safe, remove the lawsuit protections, and force landlords to comply with rigorous standards to clean up not only peeling paint but also lead dust, which experts identify as a key means of exposure.

"This is our chance to step up to our responsibility to protect these children," Perkins says. "It's not a political or a budgetary matter. It's a moral matter."

But the new bill has already met with two setbacks. In 1999 community groups and advocates filed a lawsuit after the Vallone bill passed, charging that, amidst the secretive skullduggery that led to its approval, councilmembers failed to fully study its environmental impact, as required by state law. A state supreme court judge agreed and struck it down. Two weeks ago, the day after Perkins announced his new bill on the steps of city hall, an appellate judge overturned the earlier ruling. Supporters of the new bill felt that if the higher court had gone the other way and spiked the Vallone law for good, leaving no lead paint law on the books at all, the council would've had to act quickly on a replacement. While Perkins is still optimistic that hearings could start in late summer, others think this stalls them until winter at least.

The second setback—unnerving advocates who'd argued that, as a public health issue, the bill should go to the health committee (chaired by bill sponsor Christine Quinn)—came when Speaker Gifford Miller channeled the bill to the housing and buildings committee. Some see the choice as a gambit to give the real estate lobby more influence over its progress. Last time around, landlord lobbyists at the Rent Stabilization Association were instrumental in defeating the stronger bill. Housing committee chair Madeline Provenzano is a friend of real estate, and received $500 from the RSA for her 1997 campaign, as well as $2000 from the Real Estate Board of New York.

The committee also includes real estate pal Leroy Comrie, heir to former Queens councilmember Archie Spigner, prime sponsor of the 1999 landlord bill. Comrie got more campaign money than most from the real estate lobby in last fall's election, netting $1500 from the RSA, $1500 from landlord lobby Neighborhood Preservation, and $1500 more from the Bronx Realty Advisory Board. Republican minority leader James Oddo and Democratic majority leader Joel Rivera, both committee members, also received substantial sums from the RSA and Neighborhood Preservation. Rivera is one of the bill's sponsors, and it will be interesting to see if he stays one.

The debate over the bill should be something of a test of independence for real estate's new friends in the council. The RSA's director of governmental affairs, Frank Ricci, personally gathered nearly $7500 for David Weprin, who comes from a political family in Queens. Dennis Gallagher, Helen Sears, Maria Baez, Andrew Lanza, Michael McMahon, Eric Gioia, Peter Vallone Jr., and Miller himself have all taken money from the real estate lobby.

"When real estate kicks in, there's a concern up and down the board," says Councilmember Charles Barron. "I know when it gets to the full council it's going to pass. I just hope it will not come out of the buildings committee watered down."

One New Yorker who shares his hope for swift action is Lisa Schnell. Just last month, Schnell, 34, rushed her family out of their apartment in an old house in the Bronx, when her two-year-old son Lindsay was poisoned. Lindsay has sandy brown hair and dark brown eyes. He can say the words "stop," "mom," and "night-night," but he spends much of his time at the doctor now. His mom says he is hyperactive and has a violent temper. Most recently, Schnell discovered that after the family's escape, workers cleaning her walls of lead paint left all the furniture uncovered, contaminating everything with lead dust. The new bill would prevent this kind of hazardous work.

"I'm very angry," Schnell says. "How much money could it take for someone to come in and check for lead? Actually they'd save money rather than waiting until someone gets hurt. And they'd save innocent people the pain and hurt of all this."

 
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