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Synthesis/Regeneration 41   (Fall 2006)

Rochester Gets the Lead Out

by Jon Greenbaum

Just before the December 2005 holidays, in a packed city council chamber, the Rochester City Council passed landmark legislation designed to end childhood lead poisoning in Rochester by 2010. The city’s legislation will now trigger testing for lead paint hazards by the county in subsidized housing. No other community in the nation has achieved more in lead poisoning prevention in its first attempt. The impressive effort leading up to that victory involved many integral parts — grassroots community members, major institutions, scientists, health professionals and progressive politicians.

The campaign’s achievement is all the more notable because the city and county were compelled to work together. The coalition derived a good deal of its power from its attempt to be inclusive. The coalition’s attempt to get a multiperspectival view of the issue meant that people were brought together who wouldn’t ordinarily work together. Many people got a chance to walk through the public policy social change process from start to finish and see how the levers of power operate.

The Coalition to Prevent Lead Poisoning was formed in 1999 as Lead Free Rochester. Metro Justice joined the Coalition in 2002. The initial goal of the coalition was reflected in its name — making Rochester lead free. The coalition began an educational phase to explain the role lead poisoning plays in learning disabilities, loss of IQ, and delinquency and convinced the county to commission a study mapping lead poisoning in Monroe County. The coalition drove home the importance of primary prevention in stopping childhood lead poisoning.

Until City Council passed the legislation, we were treating the children of our community as human lead tests. Neither the city nor the county was looking for lead paint hazards and neither governmental body was obliged to take action until after a child was poisoned.

… we were treating the children of our community as human lead tests.

The coalition’s stated goal meant removing lead from every home in the area. With the price tag for abatement around $40,000 per home, such an undertaking was not even vaguely politically feasible.

The coalition soon realized that it would have to define the issue more narrowly. Any social change movement has to effectively define a problem as an issue. The civil rights movement would have failed if people had stood in front of governmental buildings demanding the end of racism. Movement leaders shaped a strategy that first defined the issue as integrating schools. They then moved on to other Jim Crow laws, culminating in the Voting Rights Act of 1964. From there the movement took on affirmative action, redlining and continues to this day with fair housing initiatives.

The key is successfully defining the issue. At a Coalition meeting in 2003 Bryan Hetherington proposed to the two dozen coalition participants that they adopt the goal of eliminating childhood lead poisoning in the Rochester area by 2010. The proposal passed and shaped the entire campaign that followed. It meant that the Coalition would focus its efforts on pushing government to mandate that lead paint hazards be contained.

In the next two years the Coalition would locate grant funding, hire staff, reach out for institutional support and refine its strategy. Organizations such as United Way, University of Rochester Medical Center, SWAN, Metro Justice, Group 14621, Action for a Better Community, Finger Lakes Health and the Empire Justice Center would commit significant staff resources to the campaign. Several committees were formed to approach the problem holistically.

The Housing Committee began working on drafting model legislation. Although it was not ultimately adopted, the legislation coming out of this committee served as a catalyst to move the legislative process forward.

Any social change movement has to effectively define a problem as an issue.

The Fund the Fix Committee developed a number of mechanisms and initiatives to provide grants and loans for landlords to use to contain lead paint hazards. This would be crucial as the Coalition made its case to City Council — the Coalition wasn’t out to “get” landlords.

The Workforce Development Committee anticipated the victory and developed plans for training local residents from the affected community in lead paint hazard containment. They also published a bilingual Guide to Careers in Lead Hazard Control which will be distributed to neighborhood and community groups, libraries and schools. These efforts sent a message to the people in the community that the coalition was serious about making sure that the dollars earmarked to address the lead paint problem would recirculate in the Crescent.

The Outreach Committee spread the word throughout the community in presentations and tabling. The Governmental Relations Committee worked the inside, with each member of the committee assigned a City Council member to shadow.

The education and agitation phase of the campaign culminated in the Lead Summit in 2003. Hundreds of community members gathered to learn about lead poisoning and various efforts in the community to address the problem. Leading up to the summit, the coalition recruited local community leaders to commit to various actions at the summit related to ending childhood lead poisoning by 2010. The summit made it clear that it would be morally, economically and politically intolerable to allow our children to continue to be poisoned by lead.

This public opinion phase of the campaign was capped by a series of strong editorials in the Democrat and Chronicle urging the City Council to take action. An editorial on the day of the City Council vote put the spotlight on the issue of dust wipes. Coalition staff and members kept the issue in the news, writing Speak Out pieces in the D&C. Several African American leaders came together for press conferences and did television interviews. The coalition appeared on 1370 Connection and talked with television and newspaper reporters. The Coalition Communications Director coordinated press releases, newsletters and emails and worked with WXXI to prepare a video on lead poisoning prevention. Metro Justice did the media work for the demonstrations, successfully framing the issue as a grassroots community effort.

The next phase of the campaign involved organizing on public policy changes. One of the lessons learned from the Center for Governmental Study’s mapping of the problem was that most of the children poisoned by lead lived in the Crescent and 90% of these children were from families on public assistance. This meant two things: (1) that the county, because it already inspected subsidized public housing, would have to play a role; and, (2) that the city would use its resources most efficiently if it targeted its efforts in the Crescent.

The pilot also proved that the free market conservative approach — all carrot and no stick — wouldn’t work.

At the county level the pilot program was classic free market conservatism, offering landlords inspections and grants for remediation without mandating anything. The pilot proved that county-subsidized housing was definitely presenting lead paint hazards to children. The pilot also proved that the free market conservative approach — all carrot and no stick — wouldn’t work.

While Coalition representatives met with County Health Department personnel, Metro Justice and Neighborhood Coalition led the grassroots effort, packing the County Legislature. Metro Justice went door to door in Webster collecting over a hundred handwritten letters urging the county to test for lead.

The result was that the County Executive announced that the county would change course and inspect county-subsidized housing for lead according to the standards coming out of the city legislation. That highlighted the need for the coalition to move the City Council to pass strong and effective legislation.

The issue of dust wipes would become a central focus of organizing efforts in the weeks leading up to the vote.

After the public hearings on the environmental impact statement, coalition members met with City Council staff in work sessions to draft legislation. Although landlords lobbied against targeting efforts in the Crescent, the city staff quickly adopted the coalition’s input on the importance of targeting.

The coalition’s inside strategy ran aground, however, as the Housing Committee Chair approached the issue as political compromise, allowing the coalition to “win” on targeting but placating the landlords by avoiding the use of dust wipes in inspections. The issue of dust wipes would become a central focus of organizing efforts in the weeks leading up to the vote. In the Housing Committee meeting supporters of the Landlord Association contended that dust wipes would measure dust that came from outside and that landlords shouldn’t be held responsible for that dust. Another Council member countered that it shouldn’t matter where the dust came from; it was poisoning children.

The bill that came out of the Housing Committee was based on many of the Coalition’s principles but it didn’t require testing soil or the use of dust wipes in testing. (Visual identification of peeling paint is not enough — lead dust on floors and windowsills is more likely to poison children. Inspectors use dust wipes to collect samples that are then sent to laboratories for testing). The bill would not be strong or effective.

This is where framing the issue properly and grassroots pressure proved critical. At the Community Lead Summit earlier in the year the City administration committed to ending childhood lead poisoning by 2010. The coalition was then able to measure the “compromise” by that standard. With the “compromise” proving the limits of the inside strategy the coalition had to draw on its ability to mobilize the grassroots.

In the crucial final days, Metro Justice mobilized over a hundred emails to City Council members. City Council staff reported that council members were receiving unprecedented levels of feedback and that, although the Real Estate Association mobilized a letter writing campaign, the feedback was two to one in favor of the coalition’s principles and the use of dust wipes.

Metro Justice also produced a video on the lead poisoning legislation that was aired six times on access cable in the weeks leading up to the vote (a copy of the DVD was mailed to each City Council member with a note that it was being watched by thousands of Rochester residents). The video underscored the importance of dust wipes.

As the Coalition Director put it, Rochester has two degrees of separation — just about everybody knows somebody who knows a City Council member. Coalition members spoke to and met with City Council members. A community health researcher mobilized scientists from around the country to contact council members about public policy ramifications of lead poisoning data and the importance of using dust wipes in inspections. The researcher also proposed a compromise involving super targeting for the dust wipes.

Looking back over the successful vote, coalition members are unsure what, if anything in particular, turned the tide in the Council. It is clear, however, that the synergistic power of a diversified, yet focused and coordinated, grassroots strategy was crucial to the success of the campaign.

The coalition is now concentrating on making sure that jobs are created in the affected community as well as getting the word out about the legislation to landlords, parents and doctors. And the coalition will be continuing its efforts to identify funds so that landlords can afford to make their housing lead safe.

The Rochester City Lead Ordinance has several notable features:

  • Mandatory visual inspection by city inspectors of all rental housing as part of the existing Certificate of Occupancy system, under which each building is inspected every five years.
  • Targeted implementation of the inspections in “high risk” areas.
  • In the targeted areas, units that pass a visual inspection must also pass dust wipes and all units must be inspected by 2009.
  • Everyone conducting lead hazard reduction must have Lead Safe Work Practices training.
  • After work is completed, owners must obtain a clearance examination by a private lead sampling technician/risk assessor.
  • A Citizens Advisory Committee will provide input into the implementation process.

Jon Greenbaum is an organizer with Metro Justice, a member-based progressive peace and justice organization in Rochester, NY.

[1 jan 07]

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