LEWISTON — Maine housing advocates announced on Thursday the rollout of a $4 million state lead abatement program that is designed to fill the gaps for landlords in need of funding to remove lead poisoning threats from buildings.

The program is the product of legislation spearheaded this year by Lewiston Rep. Jared Golden, who spoke during a news conference on Howard Street alongside a number of local partners in combating the public health issue.

Lewiston has long been recognized as having one of the highest rates of childhood lead poisoning in the state, and officials working on local efforts say the new program will result in more complete lead-removal projects.

Greg Payne, director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, introduced the program Thursday, saying the funds should benefit some 200 homes across the state.

Childhood lead poisoning rates from the past year, compiled by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, indicate that 322 children were identified as lead poisoned, and were provided with “intervention measures.”

Payne said 297 of the children would not have been considered lead poisoned under Maine’s previous standards, which shifted to more stringent guidelines in 2016.

In the first year under the new law, from September 2016 to September 2017, 386 additional children statewide were identified as lead poisoned.

Golden said the new abatement program will end up saving taxpayers money while preventing devastating developmental disabilities in children that cannot be reversed.

Lead poisoning can lead to a variety of serious health problems in children, including decreased bone and muscle growth, poor muscle coordination, damage to the nervous system and kidneys, and hearing loss.

Golden said for every child with lead poisoning there is an estimated annual special education cost of $16,800.

“Over the course of a K-12 education, that’s over $200,000 per child,” he said. “For those wondering why we’re making this investment, I’d like to ask them, what does this look like in regard to rising property taxes here in Lewiston and all over the state.”

MaineHousing recently completed the program rules, and as of Thursday, property owners can now contact the agency to apply for assistance in lead abatement.

In addition to providing matching funds, property owners who access the funds must agree to keep rental units affordable based on MaineHousing guidelines for at least four years following completion of the abatement work, Payne said.

He said the level of matching funds required from landlords is lessened if the landlord seeks abatement before any lead risks are found at the property. If a child has been lead poisoned, he said, the property owner is expected to pay at least 25 percent of the cost. But if a landlord is proactive, the cost is 10 percent.

In Lewiston, which has its own federal grant that currently funds abatement efforts, the state program will act as another resource for landlords.

Officials of Lewiston-Auburn’s local lead program announced just last week that the program had recently hit the 500-unit mark for apartments cleared of lead threats since the initiative began in 2009.

Travis Mills, the city’s lead program manager, said Thursday that many units locally and statewide need more attention than the current federal grants can provide.

The state money also has less strict income guidelines and that will allow more units to receive abatement work. He said in the past, for example, a four-unit building with lead might see two units receive abatement work due to those units meeting federal income requirements based on its tenants, while the others sit untouched.

In some older buildings, lead paint may be present on the building’s exterior and not be abated, still leaving people at risk.

“It will fill some gaps that we couldn’t previously fund, and it will help us get some more complete projects,” he said.

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