BUFFALO, New York A number of companies and individuals renting homes to predominantly impoverished Black communities are being sued for using lead paint in those homes, causing the poisoning many of those families renting those homes.
Those charged are accused of knowingly allowing the lead paint-related hazards to proliferate in their rental properties.
The lawsuit has been launched jointly by the State of New York and the City of Buffalo.
"It is as immoral as it is illegal that a landlord would knowingly expose families to lead poisoning, which disproportionately threatens the health and development of Black and brown children," New York Attorney General James said Saturday. "Our children deserve to live in safe and healthy homes, not dangerous and poisonous ones.'
"This group of landlords and property managers put low-income Buffalo communities at extreme risk, and today we are holding them accountable. As Buffalo continues to have some of the highest rates of childhood lead poisoning in the country, my office will continue to hold bad actors responsible. Every family deserves to live in a home free of lead hazards, and I will work to ensure that happens," James added.
More than 150 single- and two-family homes in predominantly low-income communities of color, has led to dozens of reported instances of childhood lead poisoning.
The rental housing operations addressed in the suit are controlled by Angel Elliot Dalfin. In the lawsuit, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) identifies six specific Dalfin properties that serve as examples of the egregious and illegal lead hazard management practices used by the landlords and the poisoning of children in those properties.
The lawsuit, filed in Erie County Supreme Court, alleges that since 2013, the Erie County Department of Health has identified dozens of children with elevated blood lead levels (EBLLs) in 22 of the Dalfin properties. In addition, since 2013, at least 63 of these houses have been cited by county and city inspectors for housing code violations, either for conditions conducive to lead poisoning, which are prohibited. The landlords frequently allowed paint on their properties to deteriorate to the point of being a lead hazard instead of preventing deterioration of paint, as required by local and state building codes, and only addressed the lead hazard after a lead-poisoned child was discovered. The group also consistently violated federal lead disclosure requirements by providing either no lead disclosure statement to tenants or false disclosures, which stated that the landowner had no reports of lead paint or lead paint hazards, when in fact there were multiple reports of lead paint and lead paint hazards regarding the residences.
The OAG began its investigation into Dalfin and the other individuals and entities in 2017, when upon a review of county and city violation histories, tax records, deed transfers, and corporate filings, the office identified the interrelated group of landlords and property managers with a record of repeated and persistent lead paint violations and childhood lead poisonings. Since 2017, OAG has found that the group violated the law in other ways, such as:
- Using shell companies to avoid complying with city rental registration requirements;
- Failing to comply with city and state property management and real estate broker licensing requirements;
- Conducting business in New York without authority to do so from the Department of State; and
- Initiating evictions of tenants in lead-poisoned houses in violation of New York law.
The poisoning of children from lead paint in aging rental housing is an ongoing national public health crisis in the U.S., but is of particular concern within New York, and especially the Buffalo region. Tens of thousands of rental properties in Buffalo that were constructed before 1978 contain lead paint which, if not properly maintained and managed, can cause lead poisoning. If such properties are properly maintained lead poisoning can be prevented.
The health impacts of lead paint in rental housing are particularly acute in the Buffalo region, where children who live in communities of color are 12 times as likely than children who live in predominately white neighborhoods to be diagnosed with an elevated blood lead level. Elevated blood lead levels are also more prevalent in Buffalo's low-income neighborhoods than high-income neighborhoods.
According to a 2018 study, the city of Buffalo "suffers from some of the highest rates" of childhood lead exposure in the nation from "poor housing conditions in old homes with lead paint." Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that in 2017, 715 children in Erie County under six years of age tested with blood lead levels between 5 and 9 g/dL, and 415 children tested with blood lead levels of 10 g/dL or higher. The CDC recommends that children with blood lead levels higher than 5 g/dL undergo case management to prevent further exposure and to avoid reaching a level that requires medical intervention. That same year, Erie County was the only county in New York in which children who tested with blood lead levels exceeding 45 g/dL were reported.
"I am proud to have the city be a partner in this suit with Attorney General James and our partners in the county," Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said Saturday. "Buffalo's residents deserve to live in homes that are safe, secure and stable, especially when so many of us have been forced to spend a greater period of time in our homes as a result of the COVID-19 global health pandemic. Property owners and managers that knowingly rent substandard units to low-income residents ought to be punished to the full extent of the law. Endangering a child in the place they are supposed to feel most secure is the worst form of exploitation."
"Families living in Buffalo's older, distressed properties are disproportionately vulnerable to the serious health consequences of lead poisoning," said U.S. Representative Brian Higgins. "This action by Attorney General James holds those who have repeatedly violated housing codes accountable and protects the health and safety of our children."
"Lead exposure continues to be a very real problem across New York state, and our children are suffering long-term as a result," State Senator Tim Kennedy said Saturday. "A 2017 Reuters investigation revealed that several zip codes in the city of Buffalo were some of the most saturated lead-burdened communities in the country, which is why I co-sponsor Dakota's Law in the State Senate. Any landlord or group that fails to address properties that contain these dangerous levels of lead need to be held accountable, and I commend the Attorney General for taking action."
"I have seen the impact of lead poisoning on members of my own family, and one of my proudest moments as a legislator was the creation of a pilot program to expand educational intervention services for children who suffer from lead poisoning," said Erie County Legislature Chair April N. M. Baskin. "I commend Attorney General Letitia James for filing suit against landlords who have so flagrantly ignored the laws we have put in place to protect our children. She is a courageous advocate for the children and families of Western New York."
"What these landlords did was monstrous," said Erie County Legislator Howard Johnson. "They have damaged the lives of countless children in our community. We are fortunate to have Letitia James in our corner as Attorney General. Her commitment to investigating and identifying these individuals demonstrates her dedication and commitment to defending the most vulnerable members of our society."
"The fact that the city of Buffalo will be joining in this lawsuit as a co-plaintiff in this case is major," said Buffalo Council member Mitch Nowakowski. "The residents in Broadway-Fillmore, and throughout the entire city, have been held hostage for decades by slumlords who have left housing stock uninhabitable and detrimental to the health, safety, and sustainability of our neighborhoods. They neglect their properties with no regard for the families who live there, subjecting them to substandard housing and a substandard quality of life. I thank Attorney General James for taking on one of the largest slumlords in Buffalo and holding them to account for their negligence."
"Recognizing that approximately 80 percent of Buffalo's children with elevated blood lead levels live in rental singles and doubles, the Buffalo and Erie County Lead Safe Task Force has been linking arms with partners in the city, county and New York state to eradicate lead poisoning in many ways," said Cara Matteliano, senior director, Policy and Strategic Partnerships, Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, convener of the Buffalo & Erie County Lead Safe Task Force. "We are grateful for Attorney General Letitia James' commitment to furthering this collaborative mission by holding landlords accountable for their properties' violations to ensure that every child has the opportunity to fulfill his or her potential."
The OAG has been active in holding landlords and property managers accountable for violating childhood lead poisoning prevention laws in New York. In February 2020, Attorney General James filed a lawsuit against Chestnut Holdings of New York, Inc., a property management corporation, for failing to comply with provisions of New York City's lead poisoning prevention law. The suit alleges that Chestnut Holdings has put the health of its tenants at risk by repeatedly violating the New York City Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Act, which requires property owners to take several critical measures to prevent children under six from being exposed to paint with dangerously high levels of lead.
(Photo credit: Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo).