County’s Lead Safe Homes passed over for second HUD grant

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – For people working to protect children from lead-based paint hazards in the home, Allegheny County was regrettably not on the list of new grants announced Monday by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The county still struggles to spend $3.4 million previously approved for its Lead Safe Homes program; it has only rehabilitated 36 of the 175 homes planned during the three-year project because of difficulty in getting contractors trained and hired to do the work.

The money’s sorely needed, according to Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, executive director of Women for a Healthy Environment, and a founder of the Lead Safe Allegheny coalition. Lead-based paint and dust are the primary sources of lead exposure in children and a particular problem in Pittsburgh because of its older housing stock.

“We are extremely disappointed that Allegheny County Economic Development was not awarded a Lead Hazard Control grant from HUD, as this impacts those families most at risk in our communities,” Ms. Naccarati-Chapkis said in a statement. The coalition is made up of local nonprofits, experts and care providers, and includes officials from the Allegheny County Health Department.

“This funding could have brought an additional $5 million to this region to not only raise awareness about lead exposure, but provide a means to address lead hazards in the home,” she said.

“We know the program is underperforming,” she said in an interview Wednesday.

Lead Safe Homes, begun in 2017, is run by the county’s economic development department. Offered to qualified homeowners and renters in the county, the program does free lead-paint testing and hires the contractors, paying up to $12,000.

A shortage of contractors certified to do the HUD work and an insufficient number getting trained to do the work has been cited for the project’s sluggish progress.

In an update Wednesday, county spokeswoman Amie Downs reported that $1 million has been invoiced so far, and work on 36 housing units has been completed. Seven contractors are working in the program and another 16 contractors have received training as part of the program.

She said there are 134 clients enrolled in the program, with 116 property assessments completed.

In a statement, ACED Director Lance Chimka said the department has already asked HUD for an extension of the current grant that takes it through 2020. He said, “We have been grateful for the support by HUD, and our partnerships with the Health Department and ACTION-Housing to make these resources available in our community and will continue working toward achieving our goals of keeping families safe from lead paint.”

Ms. Naccarati-Chapkis said the coalition is offering help to the county, in particular related to recruiting and training contractors.

“The coalition is committed to doing whatever it takes for families on the waiting list,” she said Wednesday.

She said the coalition is conducting focus groups with contractors to understand where their challenges lie and members have met with the county’s economic development and health departments to work on strategies that focus on preventing children from being exposed to lead.

“We’ve missed out on year one of this grant during a period when there is momentum at the state level to focus on primary prevention, making homes lead-safe for families,” she said in the statement. “It is critical that we determine a means to securing the second round of funding when it becomes available.”

Grants from HUD’s Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes support local efforts to eliminate lead-paint and other housing-related health hazards from lower-income homes. In Pennsylvania, in the latest round of grants, amounts ranging from $1 million to $9.7 million were awarded to the state, to the cities of Harrisburg and Lancaster and to Montgomery, Delaware and Bucks counties.

Lancaster was given $9.5 million for Lead Hazard Control for 710 homes; Harrisburg, $5 million for 480 homes.

HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan said all applicants may ask for a technical debriefing, to see how they scored in the various rating factors compared to other applicants.

“Hopefully [Allegheny County] will go through the technical review,” Ms. Naccarati-Chapkis said Wednesday, “and take information that’s shared during that process and use that in the next application process.”

She said additional time on the current grant may help eligible families get through the screening process and have their home projects completed.

“Not receiving additional HUD funding at this time is an opportunity to revisit the conversation,” she said. “Real change is required to fulfill the HUD grant and help the families.”

Meeting with contractors may provide some answers, Ms. Naccarati-Chapkis said. “We’re hoping that might be a first step, perhaps there’s a deeper dive to understand the problem.”

Meanwhile, other cities are moving forward with lead-exposure prevention laws. Philadelphia City Council Sept. 26 unanimously approved a bill that enlists landlords in the effort to prevent children from lead poisoning from paint in rental homes. It will require testing for lead every four years in all rental properties built before 1978. The bill is expected to be signed into law and go into effect Oct. 1, 2020.

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