Nonprofits Largely Alone in Addressing Lead and Other Toxins in Poor Midwest Communities

“Indiana Harbor” By U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Chicago District [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

March 8, 2017; Indiana Lawyer

The latest news from East Chicago, Indiana, is disturbing for a number of reasons. Last year, tenants at the West Calumet Housing Complex learned they were living atop a Superfund site full of lead and arsenic. The dangers of the site were well known to the federal government, which had been negotiating and litigating with the site’s former owners to get help with the costs of a cleanup. No one told the tenants that their children were being poisoned until last summer. Now, after working with tenants for almost a year to find suitable housing, HUD said, in essence, “Here’s your voucher. Find a place to go.”

The Indiana Lawyer, in an article entitled “Nonprofit legal groups help East Chicago residents living in environmental nightmare,” offers a terrific summary of the tenants’ struggle to find lead-safe housing: “Since learning last summer that the place they call home is an environmental disaster, they have been scrambling to find new housing, struggling to get answers, and coping with the trauma that they and their children might have long-term illnesses and health problems.” The Chicago Tribune has also dug into the story to assess what went wrong.

The story of West Calumet Housing Complex broke nationally back in August when the New York Times profiled the tenants’ plight. At that time, officials were pledging to find safe housing and provide relocation assistance to tenants living at West Calumet Housing Complex.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has provided the East Chicago Housing Authority with $1.9 million to help residents pay for new rentals in the city or anywhere in the country, starting next month. But many questions remain, including whether the city, state or federal government will cover residents’ moving expenses and security deposits and whether they will be able to find safe, affordable housing with the amounts they receive. So far, only $100,000 has been allocated, by the state, for moving expenses.

According to the article in Indiana Lawyer and other sources, that effort to support relocation collapsed when HUD officials suddenly ordered the local housing authority to issue vouchers and vacate the units immediately: “Shriver Center staff attorney Emily Coffey said the initial panic that ignited when residents could not find housing has eased. A relocation plan is in place, and tenants are getting the information they need. Of the roughly 300 families that called the complex home, about 200 have relocated.”

Then, “on March 1st, HUD tossed the ball back to the East Chicago Housing Authority, authorizing it to begin to forcibly relocate the remaining residents. Coffey said such action would ‘virtually guarantee’ that families will not move to healthy housing.”

Is HUD throwing in the towel on failing properties? HUD’s decision to cease relocation efforts in East Chicago tenants may not be an isolated incident. This past week, tenants in a troubled property in Cincinnati were told their subsidies had been “abated” and that vouchers were ordered. In that case, HUD officials referred to concerns about Congressional oversight of HUD.

Part of the problem the tenants face seems related to the difficulty of finding any lead-safe housing in older industrial communities. Tenants who want to relocate close to their jobs, schools, and extended families found it hard to find homes that could be approved for voucher use. This past week, social service agencies in Cleveland were invited to a meeting to plan how to help families who might be displaced as the City of Cleveland embarks upon more aggressive code enforcement around health and safety issues. The meeting for nonprofits comes in the wake of the mayor’s comment that half to three-quarters of Cleveland families would be displaced if the city enforced the local housing code. (Funny how civic leaders managed to find the money to host last year’s Republican National Convention.)

Suddenly, it seems that nonprofits are the only institutions holding the social safety net for tenants coping with lead poisoning. Former Indiana governor Mike Pence, whose public health officials missed the crisis in East Chicago, is in D.C. now. Dr. Ben Carson, who pledged to make lead poisoning a signature issue at HUD, is leading the organization that seems to have abandoned relocation efforts in East Chicago. Legal services programs, which were seemingly the only voices for the tenants, are facing an uncertain funding future.

Civic leaders seem to have decided that poisoning low-income, minority children is acceptable in Trump’s America. That’s how far we’ve come from the days when Flint was a call to action.—Spencer Wells