Taina Gonzalez’s daughter, Jadzia, is small for her two and a half years. She works intently on a full plate of rice and chicken while her mother does volunteer work at Make the Road by Walking, a women-led community organization in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The nonprofit is trying hard to keep people informed about the dangers of lead poisoning, and Taina has her own concerns about lead.
“I’m worried,” she admits. “Our place tested positive for lead.” She sees dust from peeling paint in her apartment all the time, and Jadzia, the perfect age for the hand-to-mouth activity that makes lead dust so dangerous, has likely ingested some. Paint chips have long been a concern, but when paint in older buildings is disturbed it can create an almost invisible poisonous dust. The effects of lead dust in children can be subtle or disastrous, and range from lowered IQ to kidney problems and anything in between. “I’m taking her for the test tomorrow,” says Gonzalez.
Make the Road also tested the apartment of Orlando and Cathy Rodriguez, who live close by with their two children. Given all the peeling paint there, they weren’t surprised when it was positive.
And while parents in low-income areas try to protect their children from lead poisoning, their representatives continue a painstaking battle over how to solve the problem—specifically whether the city will pass Resolution 101 condemning lead dust as a dangerous toxin and dramatically shortening the time frame for correcting lead problems in low-income buildings. The current law, known as New York City Local Law 38, encourages perfunctory cleanup jobs while shielding building owners from suits by victims. At the end of this month, the City Council’s housing and environmental committees are holding a joint session to evaluate LL 38, and according to Saulo Colón, Make the Road’s environmental justice coordinator, it’s a chance to also look at Resolution 101.
Two of the most important figures in this debate are present and past City Council members Martin and Erik Dilan, a father-and-son duo whose support of weaker, landlord-friendly laws has done much to delay environmental protection for Bushwick children. In July, Make the Road led a 10-block neighborhood march to protest outside City Councilmember Erik Dilan’s office in hopes of shaming him into supporting Resolution 101. Dilan, who won the 37th district by 87 percent last year when his term-limited dad, Martin, stepped down, is unlikely to be of any help. Though his district (dubbed the “lead belt”) has the highest rate of new lead poisoning cases in all of New York City—3152 since the year 2000, according to a newly released New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) report, Dilan refuses to support 101.
His contribution disclosure report paints a clear picture of a councilmember out to protect building owners from costly lead laws: The top contributions to his 2001 campaign came from landowners, starting with $1000 from Douglas Durst of the gargantuan Durst Organization and thousands more from other realty interests. Dilan’s father was one of nine councilmembers on a committee that supported the watered-down lead poisoning bill steered through the council in 1999 by former speaker Peter Vallone. One member reported at the time that all kinds of pressure were brought to push through the “landlord’s bill,” as it was called. Now law, the statute does not mention the dangers of lead dust.
The battle over Resolution 101 is shaping up much the same way, with the exception of a new family face. Erik Dilan, citing a familiar argument from environmental regulation opponents, claims the new bill would open the door for more suits. But Matthew Chachère, an attorney for the New York City Coalition to End Lead Poisoning, disagrees. “The question is, are you going to continue providing a supply of poisoned children who bring claims to court because they are needlessly poisoned or do you eliminate poisoning altogether?” asks Chachère. “If Mr. Dilan is serious, he should be interested in preventing kids from getting poisoned.”
But New York’s real estate industry continues to support a law that protects them from costly lawsuits. Today, landlords only have to claim that a tenant never mentioned lead-paint hazards in order to gain immunity from fines and claims. “The real estate lobby has been saying there’s not a problem,” explains David Palmer, co-author of the NYPIRG report. “The Rent Stabilization Association (RSA) is our biggest opponent.” Indeed, the RSA, New York’s influential landlord lobby group, supported Vallone’s bill, and it’s on the same track this time. But, says Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a lead-exposure specialist at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, Local Law 38 is a throwback to 30 years ago, when everybody thought paint chips were the major problem. “Lead dust,” he explains, “is the single most important source of lead exposure.”
And the dangers of lead dust are weighing heavily on Orlando Rodriguez’s mind. “Our 10-year-old has stomachaches and headaches every other day and our six-year-old is starting to have problems with other children,” he says. When their building manager sent workers over to fix the walls, “they just slapped a coat of cheap paint on while the kids were home,” says Rodriguez, and tracked dust all over. The couple is sure they’re getting shoddy work because they only pay $413 a month in rent.
Resolution 101 was introduced by Councilmember Bill Perkins, who was at a closed-door meeting last month with the Black, Hispanic, and Asian Caucus and community groups like Make the Road. Perkins said opponents of the new bill were suggesting poorer areas shouldn’t fight for increased “expenses” like 101 if they want continued affordable housing. “In other words, childhood lead poisoning equals affordable housing,” says Perkins. “It’s somewhat insulting.”
The caucus vote was of particular interest to Colón, who organized the protest outside Dilan’s office. He saw the meeting as a chance to get Dilan to defend his opposition to 101. The caucus voted 12 to one (with four abstentions) to support it. “Dilan just voted ‘present,’ ” said Colón. “He sat there, and didn’t say a thing.”