When big flakes of paint started falling onto the very spot where Elaine Kaufmann had been nursing her baby in her Cobble Hill apartment, it was time for her to act. Kaufmann’s landlord had ignored requests to fix an obvious problem, and when she filed a complaint with the city, inspectors swarmed in, finding dozens of lead-paint violations.
Work commenced, but five months later, already facing a hostile landlord and worrying that their home was still toxic, her family gave up and moved out. “It was horrible,” says Kaufmann. “I’ll never forget standing in the middle of the living room, with our son, afraid to touch anything. We ended up leaving the neighborhood.”
Stories like hers are becoming familiar, fed by a set of clashing trends. Brooklyn’s old brownstones are popular among families with small children. Their landlords are often just householders who rent out a floor or two and would be clobbered by a big lead-abatement expense. (Contractors can charge $10,000 to deal with a two-bedroom apartment, and the city requires landlords to relocate families while work is done.) Tenants are adamant that their kids be protected; landlords want the problem to go away. If they can’t come to an agreement, families get fed up and leave, or, in the ugliest stories, the landlord harasses them till they do, bringing in a tenant (presumably childless) who won’t demand repairs. “It’s commonplace,” says Laurence Molloy, an environmental inspector. “The tenants hate the landlord, and they’ve gone through a contentious experience. They just want to build a new nest.” Meanwhile, on the other side of the balance, “certain landlords are between a rock and a hard place,” says Pat James Crispi, a Manhattan personal-injury attorney. “They own five-story walk-ups leveraged to the max”—and money is tighter than ever.
New York City has one of the strictest lead laws in the country. Since it was passed in 2003, after a Bloomberg veto and a City Council override, owners of pre-1960 apartments that house children under 7 must inspect every year and hire an EPA-certified contractor if a paint problem is discovered. Yet “I don’t think most people are complying,” Molloy says. Steven Rosenbaum, principal at Accredited Lead Inspection, agrees: “Most landlords aren’t even familiar with the law.” Only when a tenant or inspector makes a complaint or a child tests positive for lead does an inspection usually happen. (That said, something’s working: Since 1995, our lead-poisoning rate has fallen 92 percent.) Erin Dalton, a Brooklyn Heights pediatrician, says that fear figures into the equation: “There is an undercurrent of people who don’t want to bring up lead with their landlord—they’re afraid of losing their apartment.”
Jemilla Mulvihill, who lives in Brooklyn Heights, decided to tough it out. When she got pregnant, her landlord declined to renew her lease. “He said he wanted to sell, but I suspected my child was the problem,” says Mulvihill, who refused to leave. After her son was born, he tested for elevated lead levels, and that’s when she called 311. The team that arrived found flaking lead paint on a window sill. “Stressful is an understatement,” she says of her experience with a “very angry” landlord. But, she says, “I am still living in the apartment—which has been painted—with my happy and healthy son, and the lead’s been removed. We are surviving in New York. Just like everyone else.”