"City Kids: Better, Smarter Unleaded"

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Opinioned Editorial (Op-Ed)

Date: Thursday, February 5, 2004
Contact: Christopher Greaves, Communications Director, (212) 961-1000, ext. 304 or Chris@weact.org

With the eerie glow of some newfangled abacus -a Bloomberg terminal designed specially for policy wonks- lighting his countenance, Gotham's chief exec calculated a veto that left a thousand little stockings heavy with lead last holiday. But City lawmakers countermanded Wednesday with a tidy fraction all their own: 44-to-5.

With lead paint still dimming wits and prospects for the thousands of kids enduring its presence in City apartments, Mayor Bloomberg - who calls education his most urgent mission- blocked legislation set to rescue them from a known hazard to mental development last December. Citing the bill's cost and other gripes, the bill was kicked back to the city council which struck down the veto with a vote of 44-to-5. Protests that the bill would expose the city and landlords to "intolerable" levels of liability and slow the pace of housing renovations citywide were deemed unfounded.

The bill, which calls on owners of child-occupied apartments to regularly inspect for and safely remove peeling lead paint and other lead hazards, is a long awaited step in the right direction. As even low levels of lead exposure can have baneful effects on intelligence, placing greater numbers in borderline function IQ range, the bill's requirement that landlords take an active role in preventing exposure to lead paint and lead dust will do much to ensure that children grow up healthy and lead free.

The specious, though oft-repeated, claim that this bill "fixes what ain't broke" -a mantra among its opponents- are mean-spirited and unsubstantiated. While lead poisoning incidence has, indeed, declined in recent years, the most precipitous declines occurred under Local Law 1, enacted in 1982 and far more stringent than its successor, Local Law 38, enacted in 1999. The declines under 38 have been markedly less steep. Critics of lead abatement are further errant to omit that New York City's current threshold for lead poisoning, at present, surpasses the federal cutoff. Less than a third of City children are tested for lead as required by law-suggesting a gross underestimation of cases. And since a staggering 94 percent of those poisoned between 1995 and 2000 are African American, Asian, or Latino, those who peddle the "success" of the present law are engaged in a form of equivocation that shows blind indifference to a remarkably vulnerable population.

The incessant grumbling about the bill's cost is similarly deceptive, and no less vexatious. The city's Independent Budget Office places the figure at around $18 million, while the mayor's figure surpasses $200 million by including one-time, non-recurring costs and pre-existing operational costs not specifically related to the bill. Housing developers preoccupied with its "exorbitant" cost make a studied effort not to mention that it expands J-51 tax abatements, allowing developers to offset rehabilitation expenses with reduced taxes. The social costs of lead poisoning in this city -estimated at over $1 billion per annum by experts at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine- should easily trump these concerns.

Undergirding all the bellyaching, of course, is the "liability issue" -the notion that a "slew of lawsuits" will arise from the bill's directive to safely eradicate lead hazards to the "maximum extent possible". Some claim this will make property liability insurance unattainable for developers of affordable housing; we have seen no data to support this assertion. Moreover, we resent developers' vain and tactless insistence that enacting the lead bill is somehow a "vote" for homelessness. The suggestion that lead removal will make it impossible to provide low-income housing, due to the soaring insurance costs that developers predict will ensue, is frankly absurd. The new lead law will not destroy affordable housing; this is not an "either/or" choice between homes and child health.

On behalf of all those who received a lump of lead-laden coal for the holidays, we thank the council for Wednesday's lopsided altruism. Thousands of kids will flourish thanks to this belated display of Yuletide cheer.


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