EVANSVILLE — A lack of money, mountains of paperwork and rules, and trouble convincing property owners to participate are hampering efforts to fix lead paint hazards in some of Evansville’s poorest neighborhoods.

Ten percent of children tested in the center city neighborhoods of Vanderburgh County’s 47713 ZIP code have elevated levels of lead more than a decade after a multi-million dollar proposal to address it fell by the wayside.

The health hazard of lead paint exposure for children in Evansville’s lowincome neighborhoods, where aging homes pose the greatest risk, has been documented for decades.

However, local government agencies and non-profit organizations say the problem is proving difficult to address on a large scale.

Instead, organizations have opted for a more piecemeal approach, rehabilitating properties one at a time as aging homes are either renovated or razed and replaced with new housing.

“If we even touch a property, our inspectors look to make sure there’s been no disturbance of lead. It’s the same with homes rehabilitated through the partner (nonprofit) organizations we fund,” said Kelley Coures, executive director of the Evansville Department of Metropolitan Development.

A more concentrated effort would take resources currently scarce, Coures said.

“It takes money to make something like that happen, and capacity. Everyone here already has an assigned task. We don’t have anyone. We would have to have another organization to work with,” Coures said. “To my knowledge, there is nothing out there to apply for right now.”

Even with funding, the Vanderburgh County Health Department has found it difficult to make headway on fixing the lead paint problems in homes.

It has been difficult to find homeowners willing to participate in lead remediation, the department’s administrator, Joe Gries, said.

The health department received a $675,000 HUD grant in late 2018 meant for helping property owners address lead paint and other home health hazards such as mold, he said.

It is working with the Community Action Program of Evansville (CAPE) to connect income-qualifying homeowners with the money to fix lead-based paint in their homes.

But so far no homes have been fixed, Gries said.

The health department has already received one extension on the funding’s expiration date, he said, and the county has until 2022 to use the money before it goes back to the federal government.

Gries said homeowners are put off by the lengthy, complicated approval process and rules.

“It’s been very difficult to find properties where families want to go through it,” he said. “It is not always just about the funding. It’s about the process. The paperwork alone has been daunting.”

Instead, this summer about half of the grant money will be used to renovate lead paint on the exterior of ECHO Housing’s Lucas Place, which provides supportive housing for homeless families with children.

ECHO Executive Director Chris Metz said currently 52 children and their families live in Lucas Place’s 20 apartments.

In 2005, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was rolling out plans for a Superfund cleanup of lead-contaminated soil in the Jacobsville neighborhood, city officials were planning to pour millions of dollars into fixing the lead paint hazards in Evansville’s aging housing.

It was to have been part of former Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel’s “Front Door Pride” initiative aimed at improving the neighborhoods in the 47713 ZIP code.

A detailed application was put together in hopes of receiving a Lead-based Paint Hazard Control grant from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development.

The city never received the grant, and without it, the plan was forgotten.

The sweeping three-year plan envisioned in 2005 would have included blood lead testing for children, an educational campaign and removal of lead hazards from homes — all in the 47713 ZIP code area.

It would have combined money from multiple grant sources and involved local non-profits such as Memorial Community Development Corporation, as well as government agencies.

“That was the most comprehensive program I’ve been a part of in my professional experience,” said James Mosley, a former Washington, D.C., urban planner hired to draft the 2005 grant application.

The grant application noted that 92 percent of housing in the 47713 ZIP code was built before 1978, when lead-based paint was banned from use.

It included plans for hiring and training workers, helping them establish their own contractor businesses for lead abatement.

Mosley, who is president of an Evansville- area infrastructure and environmental consulting company, said he believes the plan’s ideas still have merit and could be implemented.

Children in Evansville’s 47713 ZIP code remain at high risk of lead poisoning from the area’s aging housing, most of which was built before 1978.

Lead testing data from the Indiana State Department of Health shows 10 percent of children tested in Vanderburgh County’s 47713 ZIP code in 2020 had elevated levels of lead.

Deteriorating paint creates lead dust that children can inhale or ingest after it settles on the surfaces of their surroundings, such as on toys, floors, window sills and clothing. Lead ingestion can also happen when children put things in their mouths or don’t wash their hands before eating.

In young children, lead can impair normal development of the brain and nervous system, reducing intelligence and creating issues such as attention deficit, learning disabilities and behavior pr oblems.

“This has always been one of those areas of concern that particularly impact underserved communities and people of color,” Mosley said. “While there have been efforts to address those concerns in the past, oftentimes it’s not enough resources. There needs to be a proactive approach to pursuing those kinds of grants to address it.”

There’s another barrier to participation, said Tehiji Crenshaw, CAPE’s housing program director.

CAPE helps Evansville homeowners with qualifying incomes find financial assistance for renovations, including lead risk assessments and remediation.

“There is a mistrust of government entities coming to your home,” she said.

The fear of intrusion of the process into private lives is strong, Crenshaw said.

She said landlords also are reluctant to apply for lead remediation assistance because it comes with a requirement to rent at affordable rates.

It takes time and effort to develop trust to overcome those hurdles, said David Wagner, executive director at Carver Community Organization.

“Just like with any sensitive subject, you have to have a relationship to get any traction with the community,” he said. “You can have the funding, with great ideas and good institutions, but the relationship part of it is overlooked. That’s the first mistake we often make.”

Making that connection means understanding the everyday pressures people face, especially in lower-income neighborhoods, Wagner said, such as healthcare costs and lack of affordable housing alternatives.

“It’s definitely a really serious problem that we aren’t taking seriously right now,” Wagner said.
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