Baltimore awarded $2.9 million to clean up lead paint

The Baltimore housing department received a $2.9 million federal grant Friday to clean up poisonous lead paint found in the walls of thousands of city buildings.

Baltimore will receive $2.9 million from the federal government to fix lead-paint hazards in more than 200 homes, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced Friday — a vote of confidence in the city's efforts to resolve past problems with its abatement program.

"It's a tremendous boost to our work in protecting children from lead-paint poisoning," said Ken Strong, an assistant city housing commissioner who began overseeing the program last year after Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake moved it from the health department to the housing agency.

The grant re-energizes Baltimore's efforts to cut lead-paint dangers in homes after the city lost out on a similar grant from Washington over a year ago. Federal officials found that the city had failed to fix up enough homes under an earlier $4 million grant, making the city ineligible for more funds.

Since then Baltimore's housing agency has worked closely with federal officials and conducted a national search to hire a manager for its lead-paint program, according to Strong.

"I have to give them really good credit for steps they've taken, and I think the [federal] funding reflects that," said Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, a Baltimore-based nonprofit group that will help the housing agency carry out the grant.

With city and state matching funds, Strong said the agency will have $5 million over three years to do work such as repairing walls and windows that have peeling or flaking lead paint.

"These funds will help us to continue to provide comprehensive services to families with few options," Rawlings-Blake said in a statement. "HUD's support enables the agency to reach a greater number of families and protect more children."

The number of young children reported poisoned by lead in Maryland has dropped 98 percent since the mid-1990s. Even so, in 2010 more than 500 youngsters statewide had harmful levels of the toxic metal in their blood, putting them at risk for lifelong behavioral, learning and other health problems.

The grant money will be used to repair private homes in predominantly low-income areas of Baltimore. The city will target homes with children who have tested positive for dangerously high lead levels, as defined by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Strong said the city also plans to focus on homes with children whose blood has tested positive for lead but with readings below the CDC's "level of concern."

"We want to reach out to work with those families to curb the level at the lowest level we can," he said. In addition to fixing lead-paint hazards, the housing department will team with health officials and Norton's nonprofit group to educate households on the dangers of lead paint.

The grant money will also be used in a third category of homes: those that don't have any lead-poisoned children but do have pregnant women and very young children who could be harmed by exposure to lead dust or paint chips.

The grant award comes as Maryland lawmakers grapple with lead-paint issues, including whether and how to help private landlords facing lead-poisoning lawsuits from former tenants. Some property owners say rental units could be shuttered after a recent Court of Appeals ruling lifted a long-standing cap on damages for poisoning victims.

Baltimore's public housing agency, meanwhile, has come under renewed criticism from legislators over its failure to pay court-ordered monetary awards to former public housing residents who suffered lead-paint poisoning as children.

Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Dance contributed to this article.

scott.calvert@baltsun.com

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