Portland, Westbrook use federal funding to get the lead out

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PORTLAND — A renewed effort to eliminate lead paint hazards in the city and Westbrook has officials looking for property owners to step forward.

“We would like to work with landlords,” Lead Safe & Healthy Homes Program Manager Colleen Hennessy said May 12, two days after updating the City Council Housing Committee on progress in the three-year $1.8 million program. 

Hennessy is overseeing the program, underwritten with U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development funding and operated with the Cumberland County Lead Hazard Control Consortium for the city and Westbrook. Portland and Westbrook are target areas because of the abundance of housing stock built before lead-based paint was banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1978.

According to the EPA’s website, a quarter of homes built from 1960-77 are likely to contain lead paint. In homes built before 1940, the percentage leaps to 87 percent. Elevated levels of lead in the blood can lead to behavior and learning problems, lowered IQs, hearing problems and hyperactivity in children. 

In adults, the EPA said elevated blood levels can lead to decreased kidney functions, increased blood pressure and hypertension. Lead is also a hazard for pregnant women, as it can harm fetal development or cause premature births.

In 2015, the Maine Legislature reduced the standard for childhood blood lead poisoning to 5 micrograms per deciliter, and implementation of the standard began in September 2016, Hennessy noted in her May 5 memo to the Housing Committee.

In the last decade, the EPA has strengthened its regulations on lead paint removal and preventing contaminated dust from spreading. The agency also requires contractors to be certified to work in buildings constructed before 1978.

On May 6, Hennessy’s department hosted a free, eight-hour training session for owners and contractors to become certified. The course normally costs $200, and the lack of certified contractors is noted as a threat to the program.

According to the program guidelines, more than 430 lead-safe units have been created since 1995 in the region and, through the program, property owners can borrow as much as $10,000 per unit to remove lead paint. Single-family homeowners can borrow as much as $25,000.

The program is limited to buildings with units rented at 80 percent or less of the area median income, and applications are prioritized by the size of the unit, ages of children living there, and whether any children have blood lead levels above the state standard.

To qualify, owners must meet the income guidelines for at least three years and the home or housing unit in the loan must be occupied by a child 6 years old or younger at the time of application.

The program also provides free testing for lead, will develop an abatement strategy free of charge, free blood screenings for children, and free inspections once abatement work is complete.

Loans will be forgiven for owners who keep the properties for five years after the abatement work.

Hennessy said two abatement projects are underway in buildings where the Maine Center for Disease Control has issued lead abatement orders. Those orders require owners to remove the lead hazards within 30 days or face penalties.

In Portland, Hennessy said the program has targeted multi-family buildings in the Bayside and Parkside neighborhoods. The city has also reached out to the Southern Maine Landlord Association to draw interest.

“I think it is a great opportunity for landlords with buildings that may have a substantial amount of lead or are looking to families,” SMLA President Brit Vitalius said Monday.

He added the change in EPA regulations has made controlling lead hazards more expensive.

“It is absolutely more cumbersome to contractors doing that work, which translates to more expensive for property owners,” Vitalius said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Removing lead-based paint is expensive, but property owners in Portland and Westbrook can qualify for federally funded loans in a renewed lead hazard abatement project.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.