January 30, 2017; Washington Post

The Washington Post’s story, “Washington’s worst case of lead poisoning in decades happened in a home sanctioned by housing officials,” tells the heartbreaking story of Heavenz Luster, a two year old with a blood lead level that’s 24 times the “action level” set by HUD for childhood lead poisoning. It’s a tragic personal story that raises profound policy questions.

Heavenz’s parents were provided the housing that caused her poisoning as a part of two HUD funded programs: rapid rehousing and housing choice vouchers. According to the article, the Luster household was moved into the apartment by the City of Washington’s Targeted Affordable Housing, which is designed to provide stable housing for homeless families. The property met the Washington Housing Office’s standards because only visual inspection for chipping or peeling paint was required. Sadly, that visual inspection was insufficient: “Instead of specifically testing for lead or asthma-inducing mold, D.C. inspectors following the guidelines visually check for peeling paint and deteriorating conditions.”

This is not a unique situation. Federal standards for inspections rely on visual inspections for the housing choice voucher program as well as rapid rehousing. Even for federally funded rehabilitation projects, the guidelines are complex and filled with loopholes.

Visual inspections are easy to pass. The Washington Post explains that with a fresh coat of paint, the property can pass even if conditions begin to deteriorate shortly thereafter. And visual inspections are unreliable. The City of Rochester, New York, for example, requires a visual inspection and a dust wipe clearance. An evaluation of this program shows that 15 percent of units that pass the visual inspection fail the dust wipe test. When Toledo, Ohio enacted a Lead Safe Housing program last summer, the requirement that landlords get a dust wipe clearance was a big sticking point. Landlords claimed that the cost was prohibitive, but advocates counter that landlords didn’t want to know about lead hazards in their property. An unreliable standard lets landlords off the hook for renting a defective product. That’s the defense being offered by the attorney for the Luster’s landlord: He passed the inspection.

In the era when adding a federal regulation means rescinding two others, it’s unlikely that anyone at Dr. Ben Carson’s HUD will be arguing to make dust wipe clearance the standard housing program inspections. But that shouldn’t stop local housing programs from taking additional steps to protect the households they are seeking to help. An affordable unit that poisons a child is not worth any price. Nothing in the federal regulations prohibits federal grantees (mostly nonprofits) from holding housing providers to a tougher standard. Public housing authorities, rapid rehousing agencies, and community development corporations could tell housing providers that they must disclose known lead hazards and they must pass a dust wipe clearance test before they become eligible to receive federal funds on behalf of a homeless or rent burdened household. The cost of conducting clearance testing and requiring disclosure of known hazards is minuscule compared to the cost of remedial health care and education that results from a single poisoned child. And don’t even try to calculate the cost of the heartbreak and loss of potential.—Spencer Wells