A Cross-Country Tale of Flint: Why Federal Housing Policies Are Dangerously Behind the Science on Lead

[This blog post was co-authored by Emily Benfer, founder and director of the Health Justice Project at Loyola University Chicago School of Law.]

We have all heard about the tragedy unfolding in Flint, Michigan.  Public officials made fiscal decisions for a cash-strapped town that resulted in the permanent and damaging exposure of Flint’s mostly poor and minority residents to lead-contaminated water. This simply does not happen in affluent, predominately white communities. 

Young girl seatedFlint, however, is a not an outlier. Another quiet tragedy has slowly unfolded across the country.  The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), one of the nation’s largest providers of affordable housing, offers housing assistance to close to 5 million households, with approximately one-third of those households including children. Yet HUD is decades behind in ensuring that HUD-funded housing does not expose children to lead. HUD’s existing policies, developed during the Reagan administration, are simply not in line with the directives of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the broader medical and scientific community on how to keep children safe from lead exposure.  

Many families living in HUD-funded housing are being forced to choose between the health and future of their children and their housing assistance. HUD’s current policies set lead poisoning levels at three to four times the rate of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This means that children in HUD-assisted housing, a disproportionate percentage of whom are racial minorities, may be exposed to lead at levels considered unsafe and dangerous. Moreover, these families generally have very limited rights to leave their housing without losing their federal housing assistance. 

HUD policies also lag behind in terms of how lead should be identified at all, resulting in young children being the human inspectors for HUD, by virtue of action being taken after they are exposed. At that point, the damage is permanent and profound, and these children have been denied the chance to develop into the amazing human beings we all hope for them to be. We cannot rob more children of their futures simply due to politics or, quite frankly, money. The costs of continuing to ignore the consequences of lead exposure to millions of children living in HUD-assisted housing are unimaginable

This week, the Loyola Health Justice Project and the Shriver Center, along with a coalition of national housing organizations, children’s rights advocates, scientists, medical providers, public health experts, and civil legal aid groups took action. We filed a citizen’s petition for rulemaking with HUD that urges critical amendments to the “Lead Based Paint Poisoning Prevention in Certain Residential Structures” regulations. If adopted, the requested amendments will ensure that a lead hazard is identified before a child moves into a federally assisted housing unit and will align HUD’s rules with the prevailing science.

Families should no longer be held captive in homes that have poisoned their children. This is Secretary Castro’s moment to take decisive action to protect the millions of children who rely upon HUD not only for their housing but for their future. Join us in asking HUD to amend its lead-based paint poisoning regulations.   

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