This article was produced in partnership with The Southern Illinoisan, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development failed to protect hundreds of thousands of children living in subsidized housing from potential exposure to lead paint and lead poisoning, according to a pair of recent federal reports.

The reports describe a hodgepodge reporting system within HUD, as well as disjointed communication between the federal agency and the local housing authorities it oversees. Cases of children poisoned by lead are not always identified and followed up on in a timely manner. And documentation of lead-based paint inspections and efforts to remove hazards are often missing, incomplete or not routed to the right place, according to the reports by the HUD Office of Inspector General and U.S. Government Accountability Office.  

Experts say these shortcomings in HUD’s oversight systems have existed for years with little to no consequence to government officials — but potentially devastating ones for vulnerable children.

The audits come as housing authorities in Southern Illinois and New York City face federal accusations of failing to inspect for lead-based paint and to remove it or clean it up where it’s found, while falsely telling HUD they had done so.

The inspector general, HUD’s internal watchdog, concluded that HUD failed to ensure that the nation’s 3,800 public housing authorities properly identified and eliminated lead hazards, “thus increasing the potential of exposing children to lead poisoning due to unsafe living conditions.”

Of the roughly 7,000 public housing developments nationwide, lead paint inspections were submitted for fewer than half of them, or about 2,700, as of February, the report states. A spokesman for the HUD inspector general was unable to account for the status of the other 4,000; complexes built after 1978 are exempt.

The other report by GAO, a congressional watchdog, also faulted HUD for failing to hold housing authorities accountable “consistently and in a timely manner” and for relying too heavily on the honor system.

The GAO report also takes HUD to task for awarding lead mitigation grants without taking steps to ensure that the money went to the most at-risk communities. Though HUD is required to report annually to Congress on its lead efforts, its last report was submitted in 1997, the GAO found.

Lead poisoning, even at low levels, can lead to lifelong physical and developmental delays for young children. The government banned the use of lead paint in residential homes in 1978. Many older homes still contain lead paint, but the risk increases with deterioration of the paint, which can chip off into pieces or dust particles that children can ingest.   

HUD ensures compliance, in part, by requiring that housing authorities annually self-certify that they are following lead safety rules.

In November 2017, HUD filed a fraud complaint against two former directors of the Alexander County Housing Authority, based in Cairo, Illinois, alleging that they did not provide adequate ongoing monitoring and mitigation of lead paint hazards.

The pending complaint, which seeks more than $1 million in fines, is the first of its kind for the federal agency.

The GAO investigators noted similar inquiries involving two other housing authorities, but does not name them.

In 2016, HUD and the East Chicago Housing Authority began moving about 1,000 residents from a housing complex that was built in a neighborhood heavily contaminated by lead and arsenic in that northern Indiana city. 

Though contaminated soil, and not decades-old paint, caused the alarming rates of lead poisoning among children, the problem should have been caught years earlier, experts say.

Then last week, New York City agreed to spend $1.2 billion over five years to settle a federal complaint that alleged the city’s housing authority improperly certified compliance with HUD lead safety regulations, among other failings.

New York City itself found last November that the housing authority failed to conduct mandatory lead-based paint inspections for four years. The housing authority’s chairwoman resigned this spring in the wake of those allegations.

Emily Benfer, a distinguished visiting scholar and senior fellow at Yale Law School’s Solomon Center for Health Law & Policy, said the reports from the GAO and the inspector general should be a “call to action.”

“The reports are very consistent with what we’ve seen on the ground between the Alexander County Housing Authority, the East Chicago Housing Authority and the New York City Housing Authority,” she said. “This indicates there could be a number of housing authorities that have falsely certified, and that HUD has not investigated.”

Housing authorities also manage voucher rental programs, and the GAO report says more should be done to protect children living in private homes for which a federal subsidy, commonly known as Section 8, helps pay the rent.

The GAO report explains that HUD requires inspectors to test samples of paint chips and surface dust using a specialized device in public housing developments known to have lead-based paint. But HUD only requires a visual assessment in private apartments. The report recommended that HUD ask Congress to standardize the inspection protocols to better protect children.

In a response to the congressional watchdog’s findings, HUD agreed with many of the recommendations to improve monitoring. Some of those efforts are well underway, the agency noted in the report, while others need to be studied further to determine cost. Overall, HUD wrote that its ongoing efforts to reduce the exposure of lead-based paint in subsidized housing “have contributed significantly to the national reduction in children’s blood lead levels.”

Responding to the inspector general’s report, HUD noted that it had revised its rules in January 2017 to require housing authorities to lower the blood-lead level at which a home assessment is required, bringing it in line with recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HUD also said it increased oversight and training.

HUD spokesman Jereon Brown declined to comment in further detail, referring a reporter to the agency’s responses in the reports.

Molly Parker is an investigative reporter, focusing on public housing, for The Southern Illinoisan. Email her at molly.parker@thesouthern.com and follow her on Twitter @mollyparkerSI.

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