By Evan George,
Daily Journal Staff Writer
LOS ANGELES - A loophole in state law allows city building officials to ignore a once-celebrated crackdown on landlords who expose their tenants to toxic lead paint.
Health advocates who pushed the legislation six years ago accuse the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety of shirking its duty to protect residents, especially young, poor children who face the highest risks of brain damage from lead poisoning.
Greg Spiegel, an attorney at the Western Center on Law and Poverty who helped write the legislation, said building inspectors "are really not enforcing what is the law." Spiegel said the law was meant to be flexible for large cities like Los Angeles with several housing agencies, but that Building and Safety exploited the rule's language.
Under the landmark statute, a city's "housing or building department" must enforce the lead codes, which made it a misdemeanor for landlords to spew toxic lead during construction, or ignore mundane but deadly hazards like peeling lead paint, common in housing built before 1978. Unless both enforce it, landlords who break lead laws can slip by unnoticed. To close that gap, San Francisco and San Diego require building inspectors to enforce lead codes.
In Los Angeles, only housing and health officials inspect for lead, despite the fact that Building and Safety presides over construction that unearths the most potent lead.
So Spiegel and other health advocates are pushing the City Council to clarify the intent of the 2003 law and write an ordinance forcing Building and Safety to enforce the lead law.
Representatives for City Council President Eric Garcetti and City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel said that they are examining the issue, but could not comment.
Bob Steinbach, assistant bureau chief of inspections for Building and Safety, said his department was not out to endanger tenants but that it would fight any move to make inspectors enforce lead codes because it would require more time and money. "We are not in the position to do that," Steinbach said. "We would have to at least double our staff to do that."
Instead, building inspectors are expected to play a supporting role by referring any unsafe construction or lead hazards they accidentally find to other agencies, he said.
Records provided by the Department of Public Health's lead program show that has happened only four times in the last 18 months - and not once during 2008.
Health advocates charge that the lack of enforcement puts thousands of children at risk of serious and permanent brain damage, especially in low-income housing where landlords make cheap repairs and knowingly, or unwittingly, break lead laws.
The problem is the Housing and Building and Safety departments can catch different violations.
Building and Safety issues work permits for all construction citywide. The department also oversees inspections of some 625,000 single-family homes in Los Angeles, usually triggered by other complaints. Its staff performed 800,000 inspections last year, according to Steinbach, including for new buildings. Roughly 80 percent of existing buildings inspected were built before 1978, making them old enough to boast lead paint, by some housing officials' estimates.
The L.A. Housing Department, which inspects about 540,000 multifamily units on an annual rotation, has enforced the lead law since 2005. Last year, the department inspected 20,367 properties suspected for lead, according to housing officials.
They said their inspectors are trained to catch telltale visual signs of lead hazards - some as obvious as chipped paint or dust spewed by unsafe construction methods - and to hand out information and citations if ignored by the owner. Those inspectors also refer lead hazards to L.A. County's Department of Public Health and the city attorney for sanctions under the law.
Housing officials said lead inspections do not require new or extra funding.
"We haven't had to hire more inspectors," said Doug Swoger, who heads the Housing Department's home preservation section. "It has meant better coordination." Swoger added that lead violations are nearly always caught by quick visual inspections and a citation, rarely requiring special equipment or lab tests.
Spiegel said that Building and Safety could take easy steps to keep landlords honest, by educating and citing negligent landlords, as well as adding lead checks to inspections they do for other reasons. Bending over to look for unsafe dust takes seconds, he said.
"We all understand that there are scarce resources. But the Housing Department was able to figure it out, what's different about Building and Safety that they can't?" Spiegel said. "It is irresponsible to give them the title 'Building and Safety' if they are going to say that they are authorized to enforce safety, and then just take a pass."
Studies have shown that relatively low doses of lead can dramatically shrink children's I.Q level., and high doses can cause retardation. This May, the first study to follow lead-exposed children into adulthood showed that low levels of lead are even linked to higher numbers of arrests, particularly violent crime.
Though lead paint has been a known health risk for several decades, few local agencies focused on prevention until passage of the lead law, known as Senate Bill 460.
In 2001, when Spiegel and tenants advocates petitioned city and county officials to help prevent lead poisoning in L.A.'s low-income housing, the response was icy.
Both housing and health officials refused. They insisted they had no expertise or authority to inspect for lead hazards, Spiegel said.
Rather than sue landlords individually, the Western Center on Law and Poverty sponsored SB 460, which made the lead hazards a code violation to be handled by the local agencies. It took effect in 2003.
California cities have heeded the lead law differently. San Diego and San Francisco now require building inspectors to handle lead in ways L.A. does not.
In fact, advocates hailed San Francisco as a model even before the 2003 state law. The city's Department of Building Inspection has strict rules for what landlords must do to keep from exposing tenants to lead and cites contractors who fail to follow them.
They play a "huge role," Neil Gendel, director of the Healthy Children Organizing Project in San Francisco, said about building inspectors. "In the building department they have a bunch of old contractors and they know [violations] when they see them. They are the key to really bringing a house up to snuff."
San Diego city officials passed a lead ordinance in April that sets a role for the building department and funds a full-time lead inspector to randomly check work permits for violations. For that, the city imposed a $30 inspection fee on older buildings. Alan Johans, manager of San Diego's Lead and Asbestos program, said that building inspectors routinely refer hazards to his office in order to cite and fine disobeying landlords. He said his office receives "a couple referrals a week" from the building department.
"There were very clear messages from the City Council that this was a very important issue and that they had to participate," Johans said.
He said city officials wanted to clarify the ambiguities in the state's lead law. "When [SB 460] came out I thought it was a fantastic tool, but its up to the individual agency to embrace it," Johans said. "I would say there are probably more local agencies that have not embraced it, than ones that have."
Linda Kite is a longtime lead safety advocate who heads the nonprofit Healthy Homes Collaborative, a loose-knit group of tenant organizers in L.A. Kite said their effort to reach children before they fall ill, rather than after, has been thwarted by Building and Safety not cooperating.
"It is a total lack of political will," Kite said. "Our L.A. Building and Safety seems to think they don't have to care," Kite said.
Kite's group regularly holds workshops for low-income tenants and investigates about a dozen complaints per month from parents with lead-poisoned children.
Nancy Gomez, like most of the tenants the group helps, had no idea her Lincoln Heights home could poison her son.
Four-year-old Matthew Gomez tested virtually off the charts for lead last year during a routine blood exam. When health inspectors responded to Gomez's complaint they detected high levels of lead in the paint on walls and doorways, according to an inspection report.
Gomez believes that a hasty construction job, involving lead pipes in her backyard, shot toxic lead into the air where Matthew plays. For more than two months after the first blood test, Gomez said, the lead in his blood remained at levels said to cause brain damage by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The 1920s era house that Gomez, a cook at McDonald's, rents has been sold twice in the last year and is currently bank-controlled and enrolled in the city's REAP program.
Jim Mangia, president and CEO of St. John's Well Child and Family Center, said children with levels as high as Matthew Gomez often suffer permanent damage.
"You first start to see developmental delays and developmental disorders and then you see permanent brain damage and ultimately mental retardation," Mangia said.
Mangia, who heads a network of clinics throughout Los Angeles, said tens of thousands of children test dangerously high for lead poisoning every year in South Los Angeles alone.
Public health officials mark the seriousness of such poisonings with what they call "elevated blood levels," which sre measured in micrograms per deciliter of blood-lead levels. The CDC considers children with a count of 10 or above to have "elevated blood levels," where a count of 45 signals serious brain damage.
Overall cases of reported lead poisoning among children in L.A. County have fallen slowly since the mid-1990s, according to statistics compiled by the county. In 1997, there were 1,184 reported cases of children between the ages of 1 and 5 with serious lead poisoning, compared to just 416 in 2007.
But moderate lead levels (10-14 micrograms) that still pose serious health risks have dipped only slightly, from 336 in 1996 to 269 in 2007, according to county data.
Blood-lead levels well below 10 micrograms still result in a loss of I.Q. points, according to a study published in February by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
Matthew Gomez had a blood-lead level of 45 micrograms.
"I was surprised and overwhelmed and angry," Gomez said through a translator. "I was shocked that lead can cause all these things - that he could die."
On a recent hot afternoon, Matthew revved a toy truck along the scuffed walls of the family's living room before sticking the toy in his mouth and dropping to the floor giggling. Gomez sighed. She said her house is unsafe but they cannot afford to move.
Kite said that lead inspections by the Housing Department are putting a dent in extreme lead poison cases because it triggers a process for prosecuting negligent landlords.
When housing inspectors see signs of unsafe lead, they warn the property owner. If the owner fails to fix the problem, inspectors issue a citation and refer the property to the county's Department of Public Health.
Liseth Romero Martinez, who heads the Housing Department's lead program, said that inspectors referred 36 buildings, totaling 120 apartment units, to the county's Department of Public Health for lead violations from July 2007 to July 2008. Martinez said that more than 100 other buildings - a total of 1,187 units - were referred by community groups working with the program. She said most of those landlords fix the problem after the first citation and many more act before a formal citation.
If they don't, the law allows the city to seek six months in jail as well as a $5,000 fine for each violation.
"We upped the ante for landlords," said Patty Bilgin, chief of the environmental health unit for the Los Angeles city attorney's office. "The greater hammer is the threat of criminal prosecution for landlords, that's why that law was important," she said.
Only a handful of criminal prosecutions have been filed against the most "recalcitrant" landlords cited by the Housing Department. Tina Hess, a deputy city attorney in charge of housing enforcement, said her office also holds hearings to make landlords comply without taking them to court. "Property owners are really cheap and they'll do anything they can on the cheap," Hess said.
But tenant groups involved complained that the legal leverage against landlords only works if all the city's inspectors, including Building and Safety, enforce the law.
Larry Gross, executive director of the tenant rights group Coalition for Economic Survival, criticized Building and Safety because the department issues the work permits that property owners must receive before starting any construction or renovation.
"We need their involvement. They issue permits and approve construction work, which can directly endanger the health and safety of tenants and their small children," Gross said.
He said the department should cite, and withhold permits from, any landlords who have used unsafe construction practices around lead. "We are dealing with some institutional culture in a lot of these departments," Gross said.
Steinbach, with Building and Safety, called those demands unreasonable, saying lead testing would slow the permitting process.
Asked about increasing inspection fees, as San Diego has done, Steinbach said that for legal reasons any new inspection fees must come from the City Council.