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Real estate groups pushed to delay, weaken Louisville’s new lead paint law

Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of “A Heavy Burden,” a five-part investigation into Louisville’s ongoing problem with childhood exposure to lead paint. What is often thought to be a 20th century problem is still very real in 2023. Nearly 10,000 local children tested with high lead levels in their blood over the past two decades, and kids are still at risk today. A new law, still a year away from implementation, aims to right this wrong.

Real estate groups attempted to delay or weaken key elements of Louisville’s landmark lead paint ordinance before and after Metro Council passed it unanimously, The Courier Journal found.

The Louisville Apartment Association in November 2022 pushed to exempt rental owners from the ordinance unless a child tests with an elevated blood lead level, according to records obtained by The Courier Journal. This would have maintained the city’s status quo, which forces the city’s youngest residents to act as de facto lead testers.

Then, in recent months, The Kentuckiana Real Estate Investors Association approached multiple council members, seeking a “champion” to help change or delay the law.

KREIA represents hundreds of property owners and investors in the area. Their lobbyist, Will Carle, said it’s not about what’s in the ordinance — but, instead, what’s not in it.

“There’s just a lot of questions on implementation, and we want to be absolutely in compliance with this,” Carle told The Courier Journal. “We’re not the slumlords. Our folks are held to a higher standard through our organization, and they want to comply.

“But we do need guidance and input on how things are going to be implemented, and some of the challenges that we think are going to be there.”

During the months The Courier Journal spent investigating the issue of lead paint and its lingering effect on Louisville children, KREIA shifted away from trying to delay or revise the ordinance, having received a lackluster response from council members.

“What I have found is that the council is going to be steadfast in keeping the ordinance as it is…” Carle said. “We don’t think we can get it pushed back, and we don’t think it’s going to be amended at all.”

KREIA, though, is still hoping to be consulted as the city’s Department of Public Health and Wellness develops more specific guidelines to carry out the ordinance.

Councilors passed the ordinance on Dec. 1, 2022, with the support of advocates for public health and children’s issues, though it included changes in the original language that added more flexibility for landlords.

“This ordinance has more exceptions than I would like,” said then-Metro Council member Cassie Chambers Armstrong, now a state senator, during a November 2022 council meeting.

“I would like to help more children than I believe we will be able to with the ordinance as it stands, with these very broad exemptions, but I’m really proud of us creating something that I believe will begin the process of helping Louisville children.”

But just weeks before the ordinance’s final vote, the Louisville Apartment Association’s lobbyist sought extreme exemptions that would gut the proactive element of the ordinance. Those exemptions would have removed key provisions to protect children from the permanent effects of lead exposure.

Chambers Armstrong called this idea a “non-starter” in an email to her legislative aide and chose to move forward with the vote. It passed without this exemption.

The ordinance will go into effect in December 2024. By this time, Louisville’s lead remediation law will be nearly 20 years behind similar efforts in some other cities.

What will Louisville’s lead ordinance do — and will it work?

Forty-five years ago, an invisible neurotoxin began eating away at the brain of an 8-year-old girl in Louisville’s West End.

“I remember her pain,” said her sister, former Metro Councilwoman Angela Bowens, who watched her undergo days of excruciating treatment for lead poisoning in the hospital.

Decades later, Bowens voted “yes” on Louisville’s first proactive lead remediation ordinance.

“I understand the questions and the fear that’s coming from the landlords, but by having firsthand experience with someone who had lead poisoning — the side effects of lead poisoning are far greater than anything else,” she said during a committee meeting last year in support of the ordinance.

Louisville’s ordinance is based on other successful laws, including one in Rochester, New York, a poster child for lead regulation.

Two years after its 2006 implementation, Rochester officials found a decline in lead poisoning cases by more than half.

Louisville’s ordinance will require rental housing owners to enter pre-1978 properties into a “Lead-Safe Housing Registry,” which the Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness will manage. Properties will have to re-register every three years.

“That’ll be huge,” said Albert Algarin, the Lead Paint Program coordinator for Rochester. “A lot of municipalities tried to implement a lead program, but if you don’t have the renewal registry program… it’s very difficult to sustain.”

Part of the registration will require landlords to complete a lead-hazard risk assessment with a state-certified inspector. 

Landlords who have lead in their units will need to remediate it no more than 60 days after its discovery, unless “good cause” is given. Failure to comply could result in fines of up to $2,000 a day.

Currently, the main reason a home is flagged is because a child tests with high lead levels.

This ordinance would ideally find and remediate lead before it causes permanent damage to children’s brains.

It was this piece of the ordinance the Apartment Association sought to remove, The Courier Journal found.

JD Carey, the association’s executive director, said he did not recall requesting this exemption. But the association’s lobbyist pushed for this change in an email obtained by The Courier Journal.

Attached to the email was a letter with Carey’s signature that referred to the suggested revisions and requested the ordinance be sent back to committee.

Meanwhile, Carey argued there are already federal guidelines in place to deal with lead paint and that the ordinance would have little effect.

“I wouldn’t say that I’m OK with this ordinance or for this ordinance,” he said. “It’s not needed.”

John Cullen, a former landlord who now runs a Louisville-based lead prevention company, said the ordinance provides a layer of local accountability that’s been missing for decades.

“If LAA is as compliant and lead-safe as they say, then they are a great poster child for the new ordinance, proving that compliance with lead-safe practices is not as onerous as many in the real estate and contracting sectors claim,” Cullen said.

Ultimately, this exemption was not granted.

“Other cities have made steps towards fixing this problem,” said Chambers Armstrong. “We know that these proactive inspection ordinances do cause blood lead levels and the number of kids testing positive to decrease, and they decrease faster than they do when you use other types of policy proposals. This really is what works.”

The ordinance applies only to rental units built before 1978, when lead paint was banned in the U.S. The time constraints to have a lead inspection vary by the age of the property.

Landlords face an accelerated timeline for compliance if testing reveals a child has an elevated lead level.

The ordinance includes a broad range of exemptions that allow landlords to comply, including if they have done significant renovation to a unit or if they have a maintenance person on site who has a current Lead Renovation, Repair and Painting certification. 

“I was somewhat skeptical of this in the beginning, but Councilwoman Armstrong did yeoman’s work in pulling this together…” said Anthony Piagentini, R-19th, at the Dec. 2, 2022, council meeting, where the ordinance passed. “It ensures all voices are heard, and it contributes to the process… I still have some concerns about implementation.”

Looking for a ‘champion’

The Courier Journal spoke to three newly elected council members who were approached by KREIA this fall about changing the ordinance.

One of them was Councilman Andrew Owen, also the co-founder of a Louisville-based real estate firm.

“They wanted the ordinance to be revised,” Owen said. “And I said, ‘I am not going to be your guy.’”

Owen read through the legislation after hearing Carle’s worries. He said he didn’t have any concerns “at all,” and “hadn’t heard one thing” from others in the real estate sphere.

“When Cassie (Chambers Armstrong) is involved in something, you know that she’s done her background work, she’s been very diligent, she’s included as many stakeholders as possible,” he said.

But Owen said implementation with any government endeavor should be monitored carefully.

“Everyone should have concerns about government enforcing things because we can’t hire enough staff,” he said. “… But this is going to be no worse than anything else.”

Carle also reached out to freshmen council members Jennifer Chappell and Betsy Ruhe.

Chappell’s legislative aide, Amy Luckett, got the impression KREIA was looking for a “champion” to change the ordinance.

Carle did not provide the councilors, nor The Courier Journal, specific revisions to the legislation. Instead, he cited overall worries about the implementation.

“KREIA and myself 100% fully agree with the spirit of the law,” he said. “There is going to be no time where we want to be putting anyone at risk… So, we are not here to be adversarial or try to change that part of the law.”

Louisville’s shortage of affordable housing

Carle said his group is concerned the ordinance “will eventually cause the affordable housing crisis to explode, basically.”

Louisville is short more than 58,000 units of affordable to low-income dwellings, according to a 2019 housing needs assessment, and Mayor Craig Greenberg has recently proposed ambitious measures to address the gap.

Brian Guinn, an assistant professor of epidemiology whose lead research contributed to Chambers Armstrong’s ordinance, shares this worry.

“I’m very concerned that this might pull rental properties off the market in an already underdeveloped market for people,” Guinn said. “Families, they live in a lead contaminated environment, but it’s better than being homeless.”

He is still firmly in support of the ordinance, though.

“I don’t know how to address it other than what we’re doing now,” he said. “But it is a concern, and Metro Council needs to keep their eyes and ears open about that concern.”

The Metropolitan Housing Coalition also wrote a letter of support for the ordinance and said it would be keeping watch on the potential negative effects on affordable housing.

“We do not want there to be any negative unintended consequences on the number of affordable housing units available in our community, as we are already facing a severe housing crisis,” the letter reads.

At the November 2022 Metro Council meeting, Chambers Armstrong said these worries have not materialized in other places with similar ordinances. 

“… We also know that of the many, many cities that have done things like this, we haven’t seen a lot of these scary hypothetical things materialize,” she said. “So, we haven’t seen rocketing housing costs. We haven’t seen housing units go off the market. We haven’t seen huge costs to landlords.”


How to test for lead paint in homes, apartments. Here’s what to know.

Dr. Brian Guinn, of the U of L school of Public Health, tests for the presence of lead paint at a home in Louisville. See what he found.

Courier Journal

‘There’s going to be growing pains’

Carle said he is also concerned there will be “delays because of a lack of (housing) inspectors, a lack of enough labs to process the actual samples” and, in turn, fees placed on landlords for factors out of their control.

But Nick Hart, who leads the public health department’s environmental health division, said anyone with a state-issued lead examination certification can complete the inspection. That responsibility will fall largely to the private market, not the government, he said.

The city is holding free lead inspector certification courses, and expects 30 people to complete the training by the end of the year.

Hart’s department received $1 million in federal American Rescue Plan funding to support ordinance implementation preparation, he said. Every tax dollar put into lead remediation in ordinances like Louisville’s represents a return of at least $17, according to economic research from Pew.

The Codes and Regulations department, which will be responsible for enforcement alongside public health, plans to hire 17 additional staffers, according to Wesley Barbour, a code enforcement manager.

“I’ve been doing this for 16 years,” Barbour said. “I’ve been supervisor or manager for nine of those, and I think we are more than capable of handling all that.”

And for landlords concerned about the pressure of complying with the new laws, Hart said it’s not too early to start inspections.

“Nothing is keeping them from doing it right now,” he said. “They know it’s going to be a requirement. The easiest way to identify lead hazards right now is to go out to one of the companies who employs risk assessors and do a risk assessment.”

Owen predicted KREIA is going to realize “this is a molehill and not a mountain. I think they’re afraid it’s a mountain.”

Rochester landlords had a similar reaction when its ordinance first passed, Algarin said. 

“There’s going to be growing pains,” Algarin warned. “There’s going to be lawsuits. We were sued left and right when this first happened. I don’t think we lost them, but we were sued left and right. You have landlords going to the media: ‘This is not feasible. This is not practical.’

“Everything you could think of, they said,” Algarin said. “But as time went on, the numbers reflected that this was the right thing to do.”

But as the clock begins ticking on the one-year countdown until Louisville’s ordinance takes effect, there is one group the law will not address — children who are already poisoned, often with life-altering consequences. More work needs to be done, said Julia Richerson, a long-serving pediatrician in Louisville’s South End.

“I’m not knocking the lead ordinance, but when we say, ‘Oh, we got a lead ordinance; everything’s fine, right?’ It’s the same thing that happened in the ’70s,” she said. “‘Oh, we stopped lead paint. Everything’s fine.’ No, it’s not… It is not fine.”

Read the next story: Louisville’s lead-poisoned children are neglected as testing plummets by 80%

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