LEWISTON — Maine housing advocates announced the roll-out of a $4 million state lead-abatement program Thursday, aimed at filling gaps for landlords in need of funding to remove lead poisoning threats from buildings.
The program is the product of legislation spearheaded earlier this year by Lewiston state Rep. Jared Golden, who spoke during a news conference on Howard Street alongside a number of local partners in combating the public health issue.
Lewiston has long been recognized as having one of the highest rates of childhood lead poisoning in the state, and officials working on local efforts say the new program will result in more complete lead-removal projects.
Greg Payne, director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, introduced the program Thursday, saying the money should benefit some 200 homes across the state.
State childhood lead poisoning rates from the past year, compiled by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, indicate that 322 children were identified as lead poisoned and were provided with “intervention measures.”
Payne said 297 of the children would not have been considered lead poisoned under Maine’s previous standards, which shifted to more stringent guidelines in 2016.
In the first year under the new law, from September 2016 to September 2017, 386 additional children statewide were identified as lead poisoned.
A breakdown of the past year’s poisoning rates based on region was not yet available, according to Maine CDC spokesman Andy Smith. In the most recent figures available, for 2016, 64 of the 358 confirmed cases in children 3 and younger (about 17 percent) were in Lewiston-Auburn.
Golden said during the news conference the new abatement program will save taxpayers money while preventing devastating developmental disabilities that cannot be reversed.
Lead poisoning can lead to a variety of serious health problems in children, including decreased bone and muscle growth, poor muscle coordination, damage to the nervous system and kidneys, and hearing loss.
Golden said that for each lead poisoned child, the estimated annual special education cost is $16,800.
“Over the course of a K-12 education, that’s over $200,000 per child,” he said. “For those wondering why we’re making this investment, I’d like to ask them, what does this look like in regard to rising property taxes here in Lewiston and all over the state?”
MaineHousing recently completed the program rules, and as of Thursday, property owners can contact the agency to apply for assistance in abating lead.
According to Payne, in addition to providing matching funds, property owners who access the funds must agree to keep rental units affordable based on MaineHousing guidelines for at least four years following completion of the abatement work.
Payne said the level of matching funds required from landlords is lessened if the landlord seeks abatement before any lead risks are found at the property. If a child has been lead poisoned, he said, the property owner is expected to pay at least 25 percent of the cost. But if a landlord is proactive, the cost is 10 percent.
In Lewiston, which has its own federal grant that funds abatement efforts, the state program will act as another resource for landlords.
Amy Smith, owner of 24-26 Howard St., where the news conference was held, said in downtown Lewiston, where most of the housing was built before 1930, lead paint presents a “wild card” for landlords on top of other regular maintenance costs.
“It’s something that can make people just abandon a project,” she said.
She said when buying the Howard Street property, she almost canceled her purchase of the building just before the closing date after finding “significant lead hazards” at the last minute.
Lewiston’s lead program was the only way the project was salvaged, she said, and all three units are now lead safe with children living in each.
“This new lead-abatement program is so important because it lets responsible owners and renovators proactively address lead hazards and still afford to keep the homes affordable,” she said.
Officials from Lewiston-Auburn’s lead program announced just last week that the program had recently hit the 500-unit mark for apartments cleared of lead threats since the initiative began in 2009.
Travis Mills, the city’s lead program manager, said Thursday many more units locally and statewide need attention than the current federal grants can touch.
Mills said the city’s federal grant, which comes from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, has hard guidelines that only allow funds to be used in units with tenants that meet 80 percent or less of median family income.
The new state money has less-strict income guidelines that will allow more units to receive abatement work. He said tenants that fall in the 80-100 percent range will qualify for the new state program.
In the past, for example, a four-unit building with lead might see two units receive abatement work because those units meet federal income requirements based on its tenants, while the others sit untouched.
In some aging buildings, lead paint may be present on the building’s exterior and not be abated in the process, still leaving people at risk.
“It will fill some gaps that we couldn’t previously fund, and it will help us get some more complete projects,” Mills said.
Greg Payne, director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, talks Thursday about the $4 million state lead-abatement program that will benefit local housing. Payne spoke outside an apartment building owned by Amy Smith on Howard Street in downtown Lewiston. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)