Philly City Council expands lead-safety testing for rental units; Mayor Kenney says he will sign it

At-large Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown said she delayed how frequently landlords must renew the certification at the request of the industry, although the industry was calling for certification renewal every half-decade (Philadelphia Tribune photo).

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — City Council voted unanimously on Thursday to extend lead-testing mandates to nearly all rental units in the city by 2022, and sent the bill to Mayor Jim Kenney.

The new legislation would require landlords to conduct lead testing every four years on housing units built before 1978 — when the consumer use of lead paint was banned. The only exception would be for units that will be rented to college students.

Lauren Cox, a spokeswoman for the Kenney administration, said in an email that the mayor fully supports the bill and will sign it into law.

At-large City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, the main sponsor of the bill, said the current law was “practically unenforceable” and created a two-tier housing market leading to discrimination of families with young children.

“The goal is the bill is to address the quality of the housing stock in our city,” Reynolds Brown said.

The passage of the bill won both praise and caution from lead-safety advocates at the council session.

George Gould, senior attorney at Community Legal Services, supported the legislation but said the four-year frequency of recertification was too long.

“In a four-year period, paint can deteriorate and dangerous lead dust from friction surfaces can accumulate, causing children to be lead [poisoned],” Gould said.

Reynolds Brown said last week she increased the time for recertification from three years to four years last week at the request of the real estate industry.

Even with that concession and others since Reynolds Brown proposed the bill in October 2018, the legislation never won the blessing of the real estate industry.

“We still think this is the wrong bill,” said Marlynn Orlando, executive director of the Pennsylvania Apartment Association East, in an interview on Thursday.

Orlando contended the bill does nothing to address unlicensed rental units throughout the city, who will not comply with the new law. She added the mandate will cost an estimated $240 million, hurt small landlords, raise rents and reduce affordable housing units.

“People are just going to give up,” Orlando said, referring to small landlords.

Susan Donado, a landlord who rents out fewer than 20 units in the city, echoed Orlando’s statements and cautioned council members that the mandates will put costly burdens on landlords and reduce affordable housing.

“As landlords,” she said, “we’ll not be able to operate in the city and we will not be able to afford to keep the housing in good repair. This money just lines the pockets of contractors who are going to perform all of these tests.”

The current city law requires landlords to certify that their units are lead-safe every two years if they were built before 1978 — when the consumer use of lead paint was banned — and if they are occupied by families with children 6 years old or younger. The average age of Philadelphia’s housing stock is more than 90 years old.

However, the Philadelphia Health Department has said many units have gone untested since the old law went into effect in December 2012.

Philly lead-safety legislation undergoes change at request of rental industry

The city’s health department estimated 18,000 properties were subject to the lead testing as of December 2017, but the department only received lead-free or lead-safe certificates for 2,148 additional units, according to a 2018 city report using the most up to date figures.

The new law would affect an estimated 175,000 units.

While the new law will provide lead-safety protections to most renters, they all won’t benefit at once.

The legislation would split Philadelphia ZIP codes into four regions based on the percentage of children living there found to have elevated blood-lead levels. The city would require lead-safe certification for units in the 11 highest ranked ZIP codes starting on Oct. 1, 2020, followed by the next 11 highest ranked ZIP codes every six months until the mandate becomes citywide on April 1, 2022.

Fines for scofflaw landlords are up to $2,000 and extend to those who help facilitate avoidance of the law.

Predominantly Black neighborhoods in North Philadelphia and parts of West and Southwest Philadelphia could greatly benefit from the new law. The city’s health department has found those areas experience higher rates of lead exposure than the rest of the city.

There is no safe blood-lead level in children and no cure exists, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Exposure can damage the brain and nervous system, leading to slower growth and development, speech and hearing problems, and learning and behavioral problems.

Children are particularly at risk from lead, and even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect a child’s IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement, according to the CDC.

Phil Lord, executive director of the tenant advocacy organization Tenant Union Representative Network, said the mandate would benefit all residents.

“Brain damage is irreversible,” he said. “We have to make sure to make our city safe and healthy for everyone.”

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for The Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.

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