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

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 — Landlords won an industry-backed adjustment to a proposed city mandate that would bolster environmental protections for most renters, but they still won’t back the bill.

Philadelphia City Council approved tweaks to a legislative proposal on Thursday that would require lead-safe certification for nearly all rental units built before 1978 — an estimated 175,000 units.

At-large Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown said she delayed how frequently landlords must renew the certification — going from every three years to four years — at the request of the industry, although the industry was calling for certification renewal every half decade.

Brown also admitted that the new proposed deadlines for landlords to acquire certifications, extending out to April 1, 2022, and based on where a unit is located in the city, will leave children at risk of lead poisoning.

“We’ve been at this for a year now and our bill is not going to be effective for almost another year — October 2020,” Brown said.

“So the bad news is that, regretfully, we’re still going to have children adversely affected, but this bill ultimately improves the lives and life chances of Philadelphia’s children.”

How the bill works

Other modifications to the legislation included delaying the start date from July 1, 2020, to Oct. 1, 2020; pushing back full citywide compliance from July 1, 2022, to April 1, 2022; and extending penalties to include people who help scofflaws avoid compliance.

The proposed legislation, which exempts units housing college students and has fines of up to $2,000 for non-compliance, could go before the City Council for a final vote as soon as next week.

While industry leaders applauded the merits of the proposal, they do not support the legislation.

“We’re definitely not in favor of it,” said Victor Pinckney, senior vice president of Homeowners Association of Philadelphia.

Brown’s proposal would cost landlords an estimated $240 million, according to an industry analysis, said Marlynn Orlando, executive director of the Pennsylvania Apartment Association East.

Landlords would pass those costs onto renters, Orlando said, and the law would cause a reduction of affordable housing units. She added that the city lacked data to backup the proposal and the mandate would not reach those landlords renting unregistered units.

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“We think it’s going to raise rents,” Orlando said. “You’re going to take the most needed houses off the market. And are you really solving the problem in the right place?”

The current city law requires landlords certify 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 proposal, first introduced in October 2018, will not put all landlords on the same timeline to ensure their units are lead-safe.

The bill 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.

Lead in Philadelphia, by the numbers

In 2018, 1,568 children tested positive for lead in the city, including 369 children with significantly elevated blood-levels, Brown said.

Predominantly Black neighborhoods in North Philadelphia and parts of West and Southwest Philadelphia experience higher rates of lead exposure than the rest of the city, according to a 2017 city Health Department report.

George Gould, senior attorney at Community Legal Services, supported Brown’s amendments but said extending the frequency of recertification would put children at risk.

“Paint can deteriorate over a period of time,” he said. “We think three years is a stretch, but doing it for four is just very problematic.”

Resident Jana Curtis, a mother and member of Lead Free Philly Coalition, also called for City Council not to extend the time between recertification, but advocated for the bill to move forward nonetheless.

“What good is a lead-safe certification from four years ago,” she asked, “if your child is playing on the floor today, getting poisoned today?”

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

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