NEW JERSEY – U.S. Senators Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), along with nine of their Senate colleagues, sent a letter this week to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) urging the agency to take further steps to address the problem of lead-poisoning in federally assisted housing.
In the letter, the Senators requested an update on HUD’s implementation of a Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program lead-risk demonstration project, as was funded by the Consolidated Appropriations Act. Under current HUD regulations – which require that children in the HCV program develop lead poisoning before a risk assessment is conducted – too many children, largely low-income and minority, are exposed to lead and suffer permanent brain damage.
“Any amount of lead exposure will have adverse effects on infant and child neurodevelopment. It is critical to the health and well-being of our children that lead hazards are identified and eliminated before a child is exposed. This is especially true in federally assisted housing. We cannot tolerate the lead poisoning of low-income children whose caregivers turned to federally assisted housing programs for safe and decent housing,” wrote the Senators to HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge.
Prior to the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified at least 535,000 children between the age of 1 and 5 with elevated blood lead levels. The CDC estimates that in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic roughly 10,000 children with elevated blood levels may have gone undetected due to lack of screening. Immediately before the pandemic, HUD identified at least 57,000 federally assisted housing units with lead hazards and 450,000 federally assisted housing units occupied by at least one child and built before 1978. In addition, there is evidence that households served by the HCV program are concentrated in areas with the highest risk of lead poisoning.
“This demonstration project will provide important information on the benefits of and structure for requiring pre-occupancy risk assessments in HCV program units and support participating landlords in covering the costs of remediation and abatement,” the Senators said. “This demonstration project can lay the infrastructure for adopting risk assessments across federally assisted housing, including the HCV program, before a child is exposed and suffers permanent neurological harm.”
In the letter, the Senators also highlighted the cost-benefit ratio of primary prevention and lead hazard remediation and abatement. Research shows that the annual economic burden associated with childhood lead exposure amounts to $50.9 billion in the United States. Furthermore, research has found that every dollar invested in lead paint hazard controls results in a return of $17 to $221, or a net savings of $181 to $269 billion.
“We have previously alerted HUD of our great concern and the urgency of addressing childhood lead poisoning in both federally assisted and private market housing, especially because the health and safety of so many vulnerable children are at stake. We urge you to develop a robust and comprehensive demonstration project and request that you provide us with regular updates as you begin planning, including who you have consulted in the planning process and justification for any decisions on location and study design, among other factors,” the Senators said.
Joining Sens. Menendez and Durbin in signing the letter are Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Cory Booker (D-N.J.).
Sen. Menendez has fought long and hard to support New Jersey with the federal resources necessary to make homes safer for families and their children. In February, Sens. Menendez and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) announced a total of $3,859,577 in federal funding from HUD for the City of Newark and the Greater Bergen Community Action, Inc. in Hackensack. The funding is part of the Healthy Homes Production Grant Program that aims to protect children and their families from housing-related health and safety hazards.
In addition, Sen. Menendez supported the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which is bringing hundreds of millions of dollars to New Jersey including $169 million for water infrastructure improvements that includes replacing lead pipes. Last January, the Senator announced $2.7 million in HUD Healthy Homes funding for organizations in Mercer and Morris counties.
In 2021, he introduced the Lead-Safe Housing for Kids Act, the Preventing Lead Poisoning Act, and with Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill (N.J.-11) called attention to the federal funding from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) that Bloomfield, N.J. is using to replace lead water pipes throughout the township. In 2020, Sen. Menendez co-authored the Carbon Monoxide Alarms Leading Every Resident to Safety (CO ALERTS) Act which required the installation of CO detectors for families living in federally assisted housing to protect them from carbon monoxide poisoning.