Landlords win concession in City Council battle over lead safety bill

City Council member Blondell Reynolds Brown advocates for her bill requiring universal lead checks for rental units at a June 6, 2019 press conference. (David Kim)

City Council member Blondell Reynolds Brown advocates for her bill requiring universal lead checks for rental units at a June 6, 2019 press conference. (David Kim)

Philadelphia landlords won a small victory Thursday in a battle over a City Council bill intended to protect children from lead poisoning.

The win came in the form of an amendment to a lead safety bill that requires all landlords with units built before 1978 to have their apartments regularly inspected to secure a “lead safe” certification. Without that approval, their rental license would be revoked.  

Councilmember Blondell Reynolds Brown first introduced the bill in 2018 with a provision that mandated lead inspections every two years. Landlords pushed back and in a compromise last spring, Reynolds Brown extended the time limit to three years

The amendment she introduced Thursday pushes the safety checks to every four years. 

“There are multiple sides to this equation,” said Reynolds Brown, when asked why she didn’t just move forward with the original bill. “We have the advocates, we have the landlords, we have guideposts from other cities. The landlords asked us for five years so, looking at what other cities are doing, we settled for four.” 

A compromise that ‘moves the needle’

Under the current regulations, inspections are only mandated for landlords renting properties built before 1978 to families with children 6 years old or younger. But, according to the city, out of an estimated 22,000 rental units housing kids of those ages, only 5,776 have complied with the regulation. 

Most of the city’s housing stock predates ’78 when the federal government banned consumer uses of lead-containing paint. Exposure to the paint or its dust is a top cause of lead poisoning. 

In June, housing advocates were stunned and dismayed when Reynolds Brown delayed passage of the legislation despite having the necessary votes to pass it. 

The latest amendments received a mixed reaction. Housing advocates object to the increased amount of time between lead safety inspections. 

“We are happy that the bill is moving, but we are concerned at the last minute that they changed the validity of the certification,” said George Gould, an attorney with Community Legal Services who has fiercely championed the legislation. “We just became aware right before council started that they put in the four years. They said, ‘well, it’s a compromise’ but our view is that you can’t compromise children’s health.”

The other provisions in the amendment include a delay of the implementation date from July 1, 2020 to October of that year. The Health Department and the Department of Licenses and Inspections have until April 2022 to fully implement the bill. 

“The bad news is that, regretfully, we are still going to have children adversely affected,” said Reynolds Brown about the delayed implementation of the bill. “But this will ultimately improve the lives and life chances of Philadelphia children, so we are moving the needle and doing a little bit more.”

Reynolds Brown said that she studied other cities and she feels her bill is strong in comparison to municipalities like Baltimore, where lead safety certification is only required whenever an apartment turns over to a new tenant.

Landlord groups asked Reynolds Brown for further compromises earlier this week, but she did not make their other requested changes. They have also pressed her to narrow the bill, saying that it should only apply to landlords who rent to children. They have advocated for a voluntary system, where landlords volunteer information to the city when they are renting to families with children. 

“The imposition of a potentially expensive lead safe requirement on landlords only when the landlord may be renting to small children creates a perverse incentive for landlords not to rent to females with small children,” Reynolds Brown wrote in a letter to landlord advocacy groups. 

Reynolds Brown wouldn’t confirm that the amended bill would be passed next week, or that there wouldn’t be more amendments. 

“I wouldn’t use the word changes,  would use the word improvements,” said Reynolds Brown. “We circulated very detailed amendment language on Tuesday, got another ask since Tuesday. The bill today captured that ask, but I could get another ask before next Wednesday.” 

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