Howard sits on a mauve recliner in the middle of his front yard, an area that he refers to as his office. He looks over a waist-high chain-link fence, on which hangs a handwritten sign advertising free scrap metal, out onto 30th Street in North Park. A stained and torn high-back chair, a white plastic patio chair, and a decrepit rocking chair occupy the unkempt yard.
Behind Howard (not his real name) is the 1930s bungalow that he purchased in 1989 for $93,000. The 850-square-foot, two-bedroom house is in disrepair. White paint on the exterior is bubbling up and peeling off. Where fascia on the eaves is missing, rotted plywood on the roof can be seen. The wrought-iron window guards are rusty, and small glass panes in the front door are fractured.
Thin and appearing malnourished, the 62-year-old native San Diegan looks frail and weak as he sits in his recliner. A salt-and-pepper beard covers his sallow face. He wears a red and purple plaid flannel over an old brown- and yellow-striped San Diego Padres jersey. His green corduroy pants cover old moccasin slippers.
As he raises a trembling hand to put a cigarette in his mouth, his sleeve slips down to reveal blackened scabs on his forearm. Howard has lived on disability since 2002. He thinks he has heart disease. His legs shake when he stands for too long, and he can’t depend on them for support. He suffers from depression and anxiety. He refuses to see a doctor.
After taking a drag from his smoke, Howard points to a manila envelope that sits on the narrow concrete path next to the nine-iron golf club he uses for a cane. “This is my bible now,” he says. “But the last eight months have been hell for me.”
The outside of the envelope is covered with names and phone numbers scribbled in blue ink. Perhaps a hundred pages of documents from the City of San Diego and the San Diego Housing Commission, as well as bids from private contractors, fill the inside.
Howard pulls out the documents, held together by a large paper clamp. The first page is a certified letter from the City’s Environmental Services Department that he received in January. The letter precipitated Howard’s anxiety and depression. It is a constant reminder of the things that have to be done and the things he is mentally and physically incapable of doing.
“On January 17, 2010,” began the letter, “an inspector from the City’s Lead Safe Neighborhoods Program observed significant deteriorated paint conditions that indicate the presence of a possible lead hazard. The Lead Hazard Prevention and Control Ordinance…states it is a violation to allow lead hazards to remain on any property. Deteriorated lead-based paint is a ‘lead hazard’ because it poses a serious threat to both child and adult health.”
The health threats include high blood pressure, digestive problems, memory and concentration problems, kidney damage, mood changes, nerve disorders, sleep disturbances, and muscle or joint pain. Every year, according to the City’s website, 56 cases of lead poisoning in children occur citywide. High levels of lead can result in fatigue, irritability, headaches, weight loss, behavior problems, low birth weight, miscarriage, brain and nerve damage, and learning difficulties and may lower a child’s IQ.
The letter went on to state that all dwellings built before 1979 are presumed to have lead-based paint.
The City gave Howard 60 days to remediate the lead hazard.
“My initial reaction,” says Howard as he looks at the letter, “you know that song, ‘What you going to do when they come for you’? Well, they came for me.
“I knew my house was falling apart,” he says, his voice trembling as his eyes open wide. “I’m on disability — a fixed income — and I couldn’t afford the repairs. I couldn’t do anything but watch my house slowly fall apart. I definitely didn’t think it was illegal, though.”
Howard became depressed in the days after receiving the letter. He worried that the City would fine him, that he would be unable to pay the fine.
“Immediately after getting the first letter, I thought, ‘Oh my God, what do I do now?’ The fight-or-flight question, suicide, I didn’t know what else I could do.”
Howard phoned the City. He explained that he lived on monthly disability checks, that he didn’t have the money to pay someone to remove the lead paint or the strength to do it himself. The city employee transferred Howard to the San Diego Housing Commission for information on federal grants. A few months later, Howard’s home was inspected and found to have high concentrations of lead-based paint. Contractors were called out and estimates prepared. Howard learned that he qualified for $30,000 in grants to remove the lead paint and make repairs.
Howard stands up from his chair using the nine-iron as a crutch and walks toward the back of the house. He lists all the work that needs to be done, inside and out, and points to furniture and other junk littering his yard that needs to be moved before work can be started.
“I thought they would condemn my house. I still have my concerns about my anxiety. I am still freaking out about the work that I have to do to get the house vacated to have them work on it while I’m in some motel someplace. My biggest fear is not being able to make it work-ready.”
Howard is not the only one in the city who has been notified that his or her house or building is a lead hazard. The City of San Diego estimates that nearly 310,000 residential units in San Diego were built before 1979, when lead was used in paint. The Lead Hazard Prevention and Control Ordinance, signed into law in April 2008, is the City’s attempt to reduce the presence of lead inside and outside homes.
Although budget cuts have affected nearly all city departments, the operating budget of the Lead Safe Neighborhoods Program has increased this coming fiscal year. Currently, the City employs five full-time lead-program inspectors, each earning between $56,000 and $67,000 per year, to inspect neighborhoods and commercial property for potential lead hazards. Budgeted for fiscal year 2011 is an additional $73,393 for a program coordinator.
More money for the program might be available in coming years. On July 26, the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing counties and cities throughout the state to hire private law firms to represent them on a contingency basis in a multibillion-dollar class-action lawsuit. The long-running suit, originally filed in 2000 at the Superior Court of Santa Clara, asks that makers of lead-based paint, such as Sherwin-Williams and Atlantic Richfield (which includes the former Anaconda Lead Products and International Smelting and Refining companies), pay for removing lead paint from buildings.
According to Nancy Fineman, attorney for Cotchett, Pitre, and McCarthy, the private law firm representing San Diego and other cities, the ruling will likely be appealed and the lead-paint lawsuit may take many more years to litigate.
In the meantime, as the City expands the Lead Safe Neighborhoods Program, more property owners will be notified. For low-income families and the elderly on fixed incomes such as Howard, the only way to remediate the lead hazards and comply with city code is to contact the San Diego Housing Commission and apply for federal grants, loans, and redevelopment money.
Frank Ballow, rehab manager for the San Diego Housing Commission, estimates that since 2002, the housing commission has received $15.9 million in lead grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The most recent grants, awarded in 2008 and totaling $7 million, include goals of eliminating lead hazards in over 500 residential units over a three-year period.
“The lead grants offer up to $10,000 for a single family dwelling and up to $5000 per multifamily unit plus $5000 for common areas in multifamily properties for material and labor costs of lead remediation,” explains Ballow in an August 4 email.
Typically, owner-occupied properties are also eligible for deferred-payment loans to cover lead or other rehabilitation costs. However, as in Howard’s case, if lead hazards require more than $10,000 to correct and owner-occupants do not qualify for loans, a Special Circumstance Committee may authorize exceeding the $10,000 cap.
As Howard walks around the outside of his house, he rattles off the work that will be done. He points to the rotted roof, the deteriorated fascia, and the eaves that will be replaced. The back of the house will get a new vinyl window and frame.
Inside, he looks up at water stains on the ceiling and missing plaster and points to black spots of mold scattered across the walls. Workers will repair the damage and install new countertops and a new water heater.
But before work can begin, the clutter has to be moved. Howard’s so worried that he won’t be able to move his belongings out in time that he doesn’t seem concerned about the adverse health impacts from exposure to lead.
“Have I thought about getting tested for lead paint in my body? I’ve thought of it, sure,” he says. “But a lot of [my] symptoms are from old age. I don’t think I have lead poisoning, but I don’t know. I have other things to do in the next month, like try to find people willing to help move my belongings. I guess I am curious but won’t know until I get through this month. I’m looking for that pot of gold at the end of this stinking rainbow.”