Biddeford landlord Chuck Pothier points to flaking lead paint on a portion of a window in his building at 17 Willet St. He is among several Biddeford landlords taking advantage of grant funding to help abate sources of lead paint in multi-family dwellings. The windows will be replaced, and other improvements are in the process of being made to the duplex. Tammy Wells Photo

BIDDEFORD — The fact that old flaking paint can be full of lead — a substance that can cause developmental challenges in children — is not always apparent. Flaking lead paint can look a great deal like any other paint peeling off a window or door frame, particularly if the property was built before 1978, the year lead paint was banned.

But it can be dangerous to children and others, and the city of Biddeford, which received $3 million in abatement funding through the federal Lead Based Paint Hazard Program, announced by Sen. Susan Collins in 2019, and additional support through the Community Development Block Grant program, is doing something about it. The city is assisting landlords abate lead with this grant and the CDBG program that addresses code issues, lead or asbestos abatement and energy efficiency in two- three- and four-unit properties with qualifying tenants.

Biddeford has the fourth highest incidence of lead poising in Maine, after Lewiston, Portland and Auburn, said Karyn Butts, who manages the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Unit of the Maine Centers for Disease Control. She said programs like the one in Biddeford are helpful.

“It fulfills a big need to create safer housing,” said Butts, who noted lead paint can make a young child sick, but often, symptoms are not apparent until the child is older.

In 2021, 25 multi-family housing units were rehabbed under Biddeford’s lead hazard reduction initiative, with assistance from Healthy Homes and in collaboration with the Coastal Healthy Communities Coalition.

The city is looking to get more landlords involved in the program to rehab as many units as they can n 2022, said Gail Wilkerson, director of Biddeford’s lead program.

Under the city’s lead-based paint hazard reduction program, free services include inspection for the presence of lead, risk assessment, a remediation design, clearance certification and an essential maintenance plan, valued at $3,000 per unit. Applicants may receive a no-interest forgivable loan of up to $10,000 per unit.

According to Maine Environmental Public Health Tracking, there were 39 confirmed cases of children in Biddeford with a blood lead level greater than 5 micrograms of lead per decaliter, and 51 unconfirmed cases, from 2015 to 2019. Robert Long, the communications director for the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the CDC’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Unit issued 39 orders to abate lead hazards on properties in Biddeford from 2017 to 2021.

Exposure to lead, especially in children, can cause damage to the brain and nervous systems, slow growth and development, and result in learning and behavior problems, along with hearing and speech issues, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Exposure to lead can put a pregnant woman at risk for miscarriage, according to the U.S. CDC.

Some local landlords, like Biddeford resident Chuck Pothier, say they are happy with Biddeford’s grant program and wish there were more to assist local landlords.

Pothier has abated three units at his property on Emmons Street through the lead abatement program and is in the process of rehabbing a duplex at 17 Willet St. Prior to learning about the program, he rehabbed four units at a property he owns on Vincent Street.

“I’m very pleased to have the help” removing lead from the properties, said Pothier, a Biddeford landlord for 16 years. “I pride myself on providing safe and affordable housing.”

He estimated the cost of rehab at $60,000 total for the two units: with the programs picking up about half the cost.

Through the program and an accompanying grant through Healthy Homes plus his own investment, the lead is being abated at 17 Willet St. All of the windows will be replaced, doors have been replaced, there has been new insulation and sheetrock, and Pothier is installing siding on the building.

“It’s getting tougher and tougher” to be a landlord, said Pothier, citing increases in the amount he pays in property taxes and other issues. Often, he said it seems “the carrots” go to landlords who are headquartered outside Biddeford. “Without help from the city, it wouldn’t be possible,” said Pothier of the abatement project.

Wilkerson said the lead hazard program specifically targets pre-1978 multi-units in which at least half of the rental households earn no more than the federal Housing and Urban Development’s ‘very low’ gross income limit — currently $41,450 annually for a family of four — and the remaining households qualify at no more than HUD’s ‘low’ income limit of $66,300 per year for a family of four. Units serving Section 8 households — or those who would qualify for that subsidy — are automatically eligible for program funding, she said.

Matthew Gardner, owner of a state-licensed company called Southern Maine Abatement & Consulting is contracted with the city of Biddeford to provide lead inspection, among other services. As well, he operates his abatement business, owns  an Augusta-based training center for contractors, and has written a continuing education course on lead for real estate agents and appraisers.

“In a multi-unit, the areas of biggest concern are friction and impact surfaces — stair treads, windows sashes, and door jambs — any source of paint dust,” said Gardner.

Coastal Healthy Communities Coalition also plays a role, partnering with the city.

“When units are abated, our staff delivers free cleaning supplies to the tenants and offers one-on-one education on how to keep their apartments lead safe,” said program coordinator Tricia Cote. “The tenants have really appreciated the free cleaning supplies and have said how helpful this service is to them. We also have a series of instructional videos on our website at www.chccme.org.”

As well, the coalition, through a grant from Maine CDC, offers lead prevention training to parents, landlords and others, handed out information packets to all preschools in Biddeford and Saco, and resurrected the Biddeford landlord association with the Biddeford Housing Authority.

Butts, of the Maine CDC, said in addition to these measures, the agency annually sends a mailing to  all Maine families of 1- and 2-year-old children, offering a free home lead test kit. Families take samples from windowsills and floors in the home and send it back to the CDC, where the material is analyzed for lead dust. If it is present, she said, the agency works with families to clean it up.

Butts noted in 2019, Maine law was expanded to require lead testing in all children at ages 1 and 2 — the ages where children are most apt to touch lead paint dust or chips and put their hands in their mouths.

With only one year remaining in the current program funding period, Wilkerson urged landlords thinking about rehabbing an older multi-family building to apply now.

“With a proactive approach, this issue is 100 percent preventable,” said Wilkerson. “We encourage owners of multi-units to take advantage of this funding and the know-how of licensed lead abatement experts to help keep Biddeford kids safe.”

To learn more, call the Biddeford Housing Rehab Office at 284-9105, ext. 4144. Additional information about Biddeford’s lead paint hazard abatement program can be found at: https://www.biddefordmaine.org/2952/Lead-Based-Paint-Hazard-Reduction-Program

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