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Why Is NJ Ignoring a Law That Would Help Protect Kids Against Lead Poisoning?

State statute says one- and two-family rentals need to be inspected for lead-paint hazards, but the law has never been enforced

This is the second story in a two-part package investigating lead-poisoning and New Jersey’s children. You can read the first story on our website.

lead abatement

Almost eight years ago, then-Gov. Jon S. Corzine signed a law requiring inspections at many one- and two-family rentals to make sure they’re lead-safe.

But the state Department of Community Affairs did not carry out the law, which required inspections for lead-paint hazards at least every five years. Only multiple dwellings with three or more units are inspected now, according to the DCA. (A searchable database of the lead-hazard status of multi-unit dwellings is available on the NJ Spotlight website.)

“I think it’s outrageous,” said state Sen. Shirley K. Turner (D-Mercer), a prime sponsor of the law. “In my opinion, it doesn’t matter whether it’s multi-family or a single or a double unit. If there’s lead in that unit, it should be abated.”

“It’s shameful,” said Elyse Pivnick, environmental health director at Isles Inc., a Trenton-based nonprofit that focuses on community development and the environment. “That’s the one proactive regulation on the books that was supposed to protect children, and the Department of Community Affairs wasn’t given the staff to do it properly and it hasn’t gotten done. So once again, we’re just allowing children to be robbed of their potential” due to lead poisoning.

The law required the DCA to charge fees for inspections and required property owners to register with the agency and pay registration fees. But the agency has not adopted rules to fulfill the law, and no inspections or registrations are required.

Meanwhile, from 2008 through mid-November of this year, elevated lead levels were documented in nearly 46,000 children under six years old in New Jersey. More than 3,000 children were found to have high lead levels this year alone, according to preliminary data. It’s unclear how many of those children live or may have lived in one- and two-family rentals.

But in many New Jersey communities, about half of all rentals are in one- and two-family homes, according to Arnold Cohen, senior policy coordinator at the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, a nonprofit that includes more than 250 organizations, corporations, and individuals.

Sen. Turner said “this is not like cancer. We don’t have a cure for cancer, but we do have a cure for lead. We make sure those houses are not being inhabited by children who can be affected by it, so it shouldn’t be a matter of we’re doing much better or we’re making progress because there’s only 3,000 (kids with elevated lead levels). We should have zero and we should not rest until it is down to zero.”

DCA spokeswoman Tammori Petty said the rental inspection law took effect in 2008 “with no clear path to enforcement,” making its implementation “difficult.”

She added, in an email, “Registering one- and two-family rental housing units is a major undertaking since there is no readily available way to identify which one- and two-family properties are rentals and which were built before 1978, where there would be a potential lead-poisoning risk.”

“One- and two-family rental properties have never been registered with the state due to a lack of resources to do so,” she explained.

“With that said, childhood lead poisoning remains an important public-health issue in New Jersey and it is an issue of concern, which is why initiatives on preventing lead hazards continue,” Petty said. “The Department’s focus has been on public education and primary prevention.”

New Jersey is ahead of most states because it continues to “regularly and systematically inspect multi-family housing for lead-based paint hazards,” she said. New Jersey enforces its hotel and multiple dwelling rules, which include enforcement of requirements for lead-safe maintenance.

Violations linked to deteriorated paint totaled 81,782 in 2000, 44,494 in 2008 and 40,775 last year, according to Petty. More than 20,000 violations have been found so far this year. If a building has 200 units, the same violation may be cited 200 times if it’s found in all units.

Sen. Turner wants to find out what needs to happen to have all required inspections performed so children are not at risk for lead poisoning.

Failing to inspect one- and two-family rentals is “like being pennywise and pound foolish if you’re talking about money and resources,” she said. Preventing exposure to lead is less costly than paying for special education and other services for kids who are born and raised in unsafe, unhealthy environments, she noted.

Though New Jersey does not inspect all rentals for lead, Maryland is one state that requires inspections.

All residential rental properties built before 1978 must be registered annually with the Maryland Department of the Environment. The fee for property owners is $30 per rental unit.

Maryland law requires lead paint inspections before new tenants move in. It also requires property owners to distribute educational materials on lead risks. Units certified as lead-free can be exempted from registration fees and further risk reduction requirements, according to a fact sheet.

David A. Henry, health officer at Monmouth County Regional Health Commission No. 1, which covers 21 towns in Monmouth, said “sometimes the idea of less government just means less service, basically. It would have been optimal if they had sufficient resources to do those inspections” in New Jersey.

New Jersey has shifted at least $53.7 million -- money earmarked for its Lead Hazard Control Assistance Fund for removing lead in homes and other poisoning-prevention efforts -- into its general fund through the state budget process since 2004.

Cohen, of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, said “it’s critical” that one- and two-family rentals be inspected for lead.

Todd B. Bates, a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service, is a freelance environmental, health and science writer and an investigative reporter. He was a staff reporter for New Jersey newspapers for nearly 35 years. His last assignment was covering the environment and severe weather as a member of the Investigations Team at the Asbury Park Press.

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