SYRACUSE, N.Y. - Syracuse is turning to Rochester as a role model in tackling a decades-old lead paint problem that leaves hundreds of city youngsters with lead poisoning each year.
Rochester tries to prevent kids from getting lead poisoning by inspecting rental homes for signs of chipping and peeling lead paint.
In Syracuse and most other U.S. cities, those inspections often don't happen until after a child has been poisoned.
Rochester requires interior inspections of rental units
Paul Driscoll, commissioner of the city's Department of Neighborhood and Business Development, has been consulting with Rochester officials for the past year.
He spent a day in Rochester last October with a team of Syracuse officials that included Stephanie Pasquale, Driscoll's deputy commissioner; Ken Towsley, the city's director of code enforcement, and Meghan McLees Craner, a city assistant corporation counsel.
Rochester enacted a law in 2006 requiring code enforcement officers to look for lead paint problems during routine interior and exterior inspections of rental units. Since then the city has conducted more than 129,000 inspections and cut the number of childhood lead poisoning cases by 85 percent.
Interior inspections optional in Syracuse
In Syracuse interior inspections of rental units are optional. Only about 20 percent of the city's 17,000 one- and two-family rental units get periodic inspections. There are about 230 occupied rental units in the city with lead paint hazard violations that have not been fixed, Driscoll said.
Syracuse has tried unsuccessfully to mandate periodic interior inspections of all single- and two-family rentals. The city included an inspection requirement in its rental registry law in 2010, but later dropped it after landlords successfully sued the city in 2012. Last year the Common Council rejected a proposed law that would have required interior inspections of rental units.
Rochester's rental inspection mandate has been upheld by the state Supreme Court appellate division and the New York Court of Appeals.
Lead poisoning irreversible
Lead poisoning can cause lower IQs, long-lasting brain damage and many other health problems. Its effects on the nervous system are irreversible. Children are poisoned when they swallow or inhale lead paint dust or chips. Lead poisoning is a big problem in cities like Syracuse with older housing built before lead paint was banned in 1978. More than 600 city children were diagnosed with elevated blood lead levels in 2015.
A controversial study published last year in the Journal of Pediatrics showed Syracuse had the nation's highest percentage of children with lead poisoning between 2009 and 2015. The Onondaga County Health Department disputed the study's findings.
State law requires doctors to screen all children for lead poisoning at ages 1 and 2 with a blood test. Those results are reported to the Onondaga County Health Department. If the tests show elevated blood level levels, county health department inspectors visit the child's home to see if there are lead paint hazards and try to get landlords to fix the problems. The county also does lead inspections at the request of tenants.
Using kids as a 'canary in coal mine'
Gary Kirkmire, Rochester's director of inspection and compliance services, said this approach often results in a child being used as a "canary in a coal mine" to detect lead hazards.
"We shouldn't be using our kids that way," he said.
Driscoll, whose department oversees code enforcement, wants to step up inspections in Syracuse. "In our city, we have made it really easy for landlords to forego an inspection," he said.
City want to step up inspections
Driscoll wants the city to more aggressively encourage landlords to let code enforcement officers conduct periodic inspections.
Syracuse's rental registry application makes inspections optional and allows landlords to fill out affidavits stating their properties comply with building codes.
He wants to revise the city's rental registry application and model it after Rochester's, which tells landlords their property is due for an inspection and they or their tenants need to let the city know when inspectors can visit. The application also warns landlords if they refuse to let an inspector in, the city has the right to ask a judge to issue an inspection warrant.
Driscoll said Syracuse already has the option to seek an inspection warrant from a judge, but rarely uses it because the city's rental registry application takes landlords at their word that their properties are up to code.
Lead paint one of several home health hazards
He expects the city to seek inspection warrants more often if the rental registry application is revised.
Lead paint isn't the only reason the city wants to step up inspections. It also wants to identify other health hazards such as radon, asbestos, mold and rodent infestations.
Driscoll said he wants to streamline the rental registry law so it focuses primarily on health and safety issues, not delinquent property tax and water bills.
Syracuse has not had its own lead inspectors since a loss of federal funding forced the city to close its lead abatement program in 2015. The city plans to apply again this month for a federal lead grant.
Rochester landlords initially feared inspections
Driscoll said city code enforcement inspectors who see potential lead paint hazards can refer them to county health department lead inspectors for follow-up inspections.
Kirkmire said some landlords were afraid when Rochester mandated rental inspections. "The biggest hurdle for them was the unknown, the fear factor," he said.
Most landlords adapted to the change, but a small group who did not operate their properties well went out of business, he said.