In spending $2.4 million, Lewiston and Auburn have fixed up more than 220 lead-contaminated apartments, replacing flaky paint, old decks and windows, with safer, kid-friendly surfaces.

That’s 1 percent of the most at-risk housing stock here.

For now, they’ve run out of money to do the rest.

About 550 children in Maine test positive for lead poisoning each year, but screening rates are low, according to the Bureau of Health.

The metal is blamed for neurological problems including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Kids under 6 are most at risk.

Lead is most often found in the paint of older homes. It wasn’t banned for residential use until 1978, and nearly four of every five homes in the Twin Cities were built before then, as tracked by the U.S. Census.

From 2000 to 2002, Lewiston and Auburn had a higher-than-average number of children tested for lead and higher-than-average incidents of poisoning, said Gail Phoenix, community development coordinator in Auburn.

Through a grant/low-interest loan program with landlords, Auburn paid for the rehab of 106 units. Eighteen have to be finished by the Housing and Urban Development’s May 1 deadline.

Before work was done in each unit, the city sent tenants a letter offering more information about lead poisoning and encouraging young children be blood-tested.

“It’s discouraging when you hear that people have a child under 6 and they’re not interested (in getting them tested), and we’re fixing up their home because it has problems,” Phoenix said.

Dana Miles, a Portland man who grew up in Auburn, renovated his six-unit building at 15 Broad St. in New Auburn through the program.

He replaced all the windows, covered the window casings indoors and built a new, sprawling three-story porch on the back of the building, all of which had tested positive for lead paint. Work began in January and will wrap up this month.

“The apartments are going to be quieter now, for one thing. I’m going to conserve on my oil,” Miles said. He figures he’ll spend 25 to 30 percent less on heat next winter.

In Lewiston, 103 units were rehabbed in a grant that offered up to $10,250 per unit. Yvette Bedard, a housing/community development officer, said she had 19 property owners on a waiting list when word came last fall that HUD would not renew funding.

The cities’ last HUD grant was $2,447,096 for three years. The next application, submitted this summer, will be for $2 million. It’s enough to fix about 146 more units.

That’s less than another 1 percent.

While the Legislature considers a $3 million bond for lead removal and bills that would penalize landlords for ignoring the problem or tax manufactures to help pay for it, advocates say lead poisoning can stop, with enough attention.

Sean Faircloth says it has to.

“It’s not a good idea to poison your work force and lower their intelligence. That’s what we’re doing,” said the Bangor lawmaker.

His bill, LD 1532, would have renters and buyers in Maine signing a boldface warning notice about the hazards of lead when they sign a lease or purchase a home.

“This should have been taken care of when I was a child,” said Amanda Sears, campaign director for the Environmental Health Strategy Center in Portland. She recently turned 30. “At the rate we’re going, my grandchildren will have to be protected from this.”

Her group was among several lobbying the Natural Resources Committee to increase Gov. John Baldacci’s $1 million bond request to $3 million. If it’s ultimately approved, it would be part of a larger package for voters in November.


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