‘A lot of hoops,’ delays and a lack of contractors: Allegheny County program to remove lead from homes falters

Jenny Stalnaker's two children have elevated levels of lead in their blood. She and her husband Clint found out through multiple tests. They sought lead remediation through a county program that is delayed in serving applicants. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Jenny and Clint Stalnaker’s two young children have lead levels more than twice the limit of concern set by the Centers for Disease Control. They’re worried that the neurotoxin commonly found in paint and dust of older homes could cause organ damage and neurological problems.

Jenny said she fears for her children’s futures. But the “thing that keeps me up at night is the fear that my kids could be removed from my house.”

They thought a program offered by Allegheny County would bring salvation to their family and 1900 home. The county program, launched in 2017, promised funds to remove lead from 175 homes. Yet, nearly two years later, the county has removed lead from only 19 homes. With 63 other families still waiting to have their homes worked on, the county’s federal grant is set to run out at the end of this year. County officials say they will seek a deadline extension.

So the Stalnakers wait. For 17 months, they’ve been asked to endure program delays while their children live and sleep in a home confirmed to contain lead. They can’t afford to leave, and who would buy the home anyway? The law requires they disclose the lead determination.

Jenny and Clint wipe down their home each night in a stopgap effort to control harmful dust they’d hoped would be gone by now.

At their son’s 2.5-year check-up last February, a blood test by finger prick showed lead levels of 40 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL). The pediatrician explained that levels that high would mean the children couldn’t return home until the lead was remediated. Because lead dust on the boy’s skin could cause a spike, the pediatrician ordered a deeper blood draw, which showed a lead level of 12 µg/dL.

It was not much of a relief for the parents. Their 5 year-old daughter’s last blood-lead level test in July 2018 returned at 17 µg/dL.

Dr. Sylvia Choi, an associate professor of pediatrics for University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, noted that these levels in a child are extremely concerning.

“There is no safe blood lead level,” said Choi, who has not seen the Stalnaker children. “Lead levels less than 10 µg/dL causes a decrease in IQ for children.”

Choi cautioned that once lead levels reach the threshold for hospitalization, there really isn’t any evidence that treatment can reverse the damage. “Therefore the focus has to be on primary prevention, and when we identify children with evidence of elevated blood lead levels, we need to try to intervene to prevent further exposure.”

The Allegheny County Lead Safe Homes program is designed to do just that — to remove lead from the homes of low-income families where children younger than 6 spend a significant amount of time. The program is backed by a $3.4 million federal grant — the bulk of it from the Lead Hazard Reduction Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD]. Beyond removing lead from 175 homes, the county also said it would provide lead safety education to 75 families.

While the Pittsburgh water authority has been struggling with a lead-in-water crisis in recent years, Allegheny County Health Department Director Dr. Karen Hacker has indicated several times that she believes lead in paint is a larger cause of lead exposure in the region. The older housing stock means the likelihood of lead paint is higher, she has said. In an interview with WESA’s The Confluence on Monday, Hacker reiterated that soil, paint and industrial sources are all significant sources of lead in the region.

Hacker declined to give an interview for this story but, in a prepared statement, she said the county’s program to remediate lead in homes is important.

“There are multiple sources of lead that pose a hazard to our children including paint, dust, water and soil. We need to increase awareness of these sources but also provide access to resources for remediation,” according to Hacker’s statement. “While the [Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority] is moving forward with removal of lead water lines and others are focusing on soil, Allegheny County Economic Development is focusing on lead paint and we will continue to work with them, refer families, and support their efforts to get the lead out.”

Allegheny County Economic Development department, not the Health Department, oversees the lead remediation program.

“Ultimately, it's going to lie with me, and I take full responsibility for what we get done through this program but also if we fall short on some of our goals that we set out at the beginning,” said Lance Chimka, the director of Allegheny County Economic Development.

For falling behind on its goals, the county blames a lack of contractors qualified to remediate lead. Having a dozen contractors working simultaneously would be ideal, said Cassandra Collinge, assistant director for housing and human services in Allegheny County. But grant documents reveal that no more than four contractors have worked concurrently.

“We know that families are frustrated with the timeline, and frankly so are we, but we continue to work at it,” Collinge said.

Collinge conceded that it’s unlikely for the county to meet its goal of 175 homes by year-end. Collinge said the county has begun to explore the possibility of an extension with HUD. But if HUD refuses?

“I don’t know,” Collinge said.

Chimka told PublicSource that he would like the program to complete between 50 and 70 homes before applying for an extension with HUD. He said he’d like to apply for an extension near the end of the year and wants to demonstrate that the program is working.

“...We're probably going to have to go back to HUD and reevaluate things and say, 'Hey, look, here's where we said we wanted to be, here's where we're at due to X, Y and Z, can we have an extension to continue our good work, or would you guys like to wrap this up?'” Chimka said.

HUD officials consider a number of factors when evaluating extension requests, including contractor availability and how well the program has been managed.

In early 2017, Allegheny County told HUD in its first grant report that getting enough contractors would be difficult.

“They could have asked for an extension last year based on the fact they were having contractor issues,” said Yolanda Brown, the acting director for HUD’s Lead and Healthy Homes Program Division.

Lead paint can be seen flaking off an outside window on Jenny and Clint Stalnaker's Spring Garden home. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Warren Friedman, senior advisor to the director of HUD’s Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes, said HUD only gives extensions if grantees give a “good justification.”

“Not meeting their benchmarks is not itself a justification,” he said. He added: “We tend to give extensions when the causes of them not meeting their benchmarks are generally out of their control.”

HUD has granted extensions because recipients have had issues with contractors in the past, Friedman said.

Meanwhile, Allegheny County appears to be far behind its pace from a similar program that ended in 2005. The county also trails two other cities PublicSource heard from with current programs. That means families like the Stalnakers are left waiting while the federal government pays to remove lead from thousands of homes across the country each year.

A nationwide grant

Allegheny County was among 121 municipalities awarded the Lead Hazard Reduction Grant in 2017. In its grant application, the county noted that 945 children under the age of six, or 1.24 of all children in that age group, had blood lead levels above 5 µg/dL. That level is the threshold of concern set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The county also noted that nearly 153,000 homes in the county were built before 1940 when lead paint was extremely common.

PublicSource reached out to a dozen other 2017 recipients of the Lead Hazard Reduction Grant to see how other cities are faring. We heard back from three — St. Louis, Philadelphia and Allentown, Pa.

St. Louis remediated 35 homes in 15 months and expects to complete 175 total by November 2020. St. Louis cited no significant barriers.

Allentown has completed 31 of 50 homes in 27 months, with a November 2019 deadline. Allentown Lead Program Manager Heidi Westerman said the city had some initial delays but were eventually able to secure five contractors for the work.

Philadelphia is also a participant and plans to begin remediation in April. The city was awarded $4.1 million and has a goal of 240 homes.

Brad Korinski, solicitor in the Allegheny County Controller’s office, said it was “disheartening” that the county hasn’t been spending the grant money to help families.

“When we [got] this grant, I think there was an expectation from our office and from others that this money would be used immediately to fix problems that were known,” he said.

As of Feb. 8, Allegheny County has spent about $482,000, or 14 percent of the grant money, according to the county controller’s office.

By this point, Allegheny County estimated that it would have spent between $1.02 and $1.53 million of the grant money and remediated lead in 110 to 130 homes, according to its grant application.

Between 2003 and 2005, Allegheny County received a similar grant from HUD and ran a similar program, costing $2.16 million. During those years, the county removed lead from 191 homes and conducted 153 education and outreach trainings. Korinski wondered why the county couldn’t follow the blueprint from the previous program.

“It’s a rather hollow answer to those kids who are sitting in a house with lead paint to say wait until we get a contractor certified…and eventually we’ll get to you,” Korinski said.

Collinge said it was an “undertaking” to rebuild and reuse the infrastructure of that program.

At the federal level, Brown said HUD has been working closely with Allegheny County to help reach the stated goals. The federal department has provided the county with pamphlets and door hangers that other grantees designed to let families know about the program.

“As of today, we're still working with them, trying to get them to get more contractors, assisting them with trying to get contractor training going, assisting them with ways they can do outreach, pamphlets, door hangers, knocking on doors,” Brown said. “We're doing all of that with them to try to get them up and going.”

Delays for families

Despite the county’s assurances that they are making as much progress as possible, navigating the program hasn’t been easy for residents.

PublicSource spoke to four families who described numerous barriers and delays in getting help.

For the Stalnakers, the program’s requirements initially caused them to hesitate. The program obligated them to attend a face-to-face meeting Downtown, which would incur expenses of parking or bus fare.

To prove their household income is 80 percent of the area median income or lower, they had to submit bank statements and a notarized statement from her husband that he had no income.

They had an intake meeting in May 2017, but decided at that point not to move forward.

“I quit because, originally, there were a lot of hoops,” Jenny Stalnaker said in a text message.

They returned to the program for assistance in September 2017. The family has had to submit proof of income every six months — a requirement she said has felt intrusive. Earlier this month, Jenny said she was told for the third time that they would need to provide proof of income to move forward with a new contractor.

Since 2017, Jenny Stalnaker and her husband Clint have been trying to participate in an Allegheny County program to remove the lead paint from their Spring Garden home. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

North Side residents Terra Nonack and Justin Carroll had their home’s lead successfully remediated with assistance from the county program, but they also faced delays.

In September 2016, they moved into their home in Manchester with their children — a 2-year-old and newborn at the time. They suspected lead was in their home and became one of the first families to apply for the county’s program when it launched in spring 2017.

It took more than a year before a contractor would come to their house, though Nonack doesn’t fault the contractor.

“It was the county working out the kinks,” she said, noting that they were also required to redo paperwork.

Chimka said that some of the program requirements, like income verification, are passed down from HUD and that the county has to follow them. Other issues, like holding meetings Downtown and delays are things the county is trying to fix for residents, he said.

“You know what, we could probably do a better job at going out to the applicants, and I'll take a look with program staff and see if there's any way we can trim that fat off of the program,” he said.

A lack of contractors

When contractor Baron Greenwalt first heard about the county’s program — and the guaranteed HUD money that came with it — he was thrilled. It was a “pie-in-the-sky gig,” as he described it. Greenwalt is certified to remove lead paint from homes and said he shifted his whole business model from general contracting to this speciality.

But as of now, that’s hurting, not helping him.

“I’ve gotten myself in such a bind,” he said. “I went to my customer base and told them I was going in a different direction.”

Of the 19 homes the county has completed, Greenwalt said his company has done 11 of the jobs.

He said it’s taken months to get jobs started and then several months after that to get paid for his work. Under the program, he works for free up front and the county has to request reimbursement from HUD.

He is frustrated by the county’s recent assertion that delays are due to lack of qualified contractors. “They can’t find qualified contractors, but you’re talking to one.”

Neither Chimka nor Collinge would comment on specific cases.

“We are using the contractors at the capacity we think they're able to work on projects under this program,” Collinge said.

Only 17 contractors in a 60-mile radius are qualified to safely remove lead from homes, Collinge said. Only one bid on the work initially.

As a stopgap, Jenny and Clint Stalnaker wipe down the interior of their Spring Garden home every night to remove lead dust. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Chimka explained that contractors might not be interested in the program because they can stay busy with other work in the region.

“Frankly, a labor intensive deal with prescribed margins and government paperwork probably doesn't rise to the top of the pile when you're talking about, 'I can be choosy in my projects,’” he said. “If we ran this program back in 2008, I think we [would] have a much different experience on the labor availability end.”

Over the program’s term, the county has fluctuated between that one initial contractor to a total of four in the first three months of 2018.

By spring 2018, one of those four contractors had gone bankrupt, according to a grant report.

In its most recent report to HUD in December, the county said only two contractors were able to work on homes and one wasn’t completing the work up to standard, which slowed production. County officials would not provide additional details.

Greenwalt said he thinks he could be the contractor in question, referencing a dispute over a job from 2018. He said the county contacted him in February about accepting work for the program.

Limiting barriers

As the months ticked by, the county struggled to find interested families.

The county’s Economic Development department told HUD that county staffers tried to increase outreach by attending more events, partnering with organizations like the United Way and Pittsburgh Public Schools and tried to make its website easier to use for families looking for more information.

Over time, the number of applicants rose, as did the number of homes in its pipeline.

In a report to HUD covering April through June 2018, the county said it had to reassess the qualifications it had set for families to participate. Originally, the county said only families with a pregnant mother or a child younger than 6 could qualify. It lifted that requirement for renters, according to a grant report from spring 2018.

“We continue to identify barriers and identify solutions,” the report said.

In a report to HUD, covering July through September 2018, the county detailed more changes. For one, the county started conducting intake appointments in families’ homes rather than the county’s offices Downtown. The county also eliminated a requirement that families provide proof of property insurance and loosened a requirement that homes be current on county taxes.

Norman Davis and Nikki Turner contacted the county about its Lead Safe Homes Program in May 2017 after purchasing a home in Beechview. Their house is about 100 years old, and its floors, windows and trim are covered with lead paint.

With five children whose ages at the time ranged from 5 to 11, the family worried about their children’s health.

But Turner said the county told them they didn’t qualify. By the time a contractor would be available to work on their home, their youngest would be 6, which was beyond the program’s age limit.

Chimka, in an email, said that generally “age eligibility is determined at the time of program enrollment and not revisited.”

Their home still contains lead paint, potentially exposing their children to the neurotoxin every day.

Turner has been working on the home in spurts when she can.

“It was really frustrating,” she said in a text message, “because there has been no way to afford remediation since.”

J. Dale Shoemaker is PublicSource's government and data reporter. You can reach him at 412-515-0060 or by email at dale@publicsource.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @JDale_Shoemaker. He can be reached securely via PGP: bit.ly/2ig07qL

Meg St-Esprit is a freelance writer based in Bellevue. She can be reached at megstesprit@gmail.com or on Twitter @MegStEsprit.

This story was fact-checked by Oliver Morrison and Erin West.

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