In the early 1980s, public health, children’s advocates and pro-people politicians won passage of a law that required the elimination of all lead-based paint, where it exists, in New York City residential housing. It was known a Local Law No. 1.

After years of painstaking documentation of lead’s debilitating and deadly neurological effects on children by medical and public health professionals, finally, here was a law to address the problem.

In fact, no one disputed the effects of lead on the young kids who would eat paint chips from windowsills and other places. But the issue quickly became a dollars and cents issue.

Landlords were furious. They were not used to losing political battles that concerned their turf, i.e., everything they own. The familiar cry of the law being “unrealistic” and “too costly” quickly dominated the mass media, short-circuiting the law’s implementation. It wasn’t until the mayoral administration of David Dinkins, almost ten years later, that the city started to attempt to administer the law. A broad-based advisory panel that included every conceivable player, even the real estate lobby, was convened.

The Dinkins panel worked with city agencies and advocacy groups. They started the process of removing lead, safely, from residential apartments. “Safely” was the guiding principle. Since it was simply not possible to remove the lead while people still lived in the housing, temporary housing was found. Seemingly insurmountable odds were overcome; progress was being made.

Unfortunately, the Dinkins administration, in its reelection bid, fell victim to a well-orchestrated general corporate attack to which it was unable to adequately respond. The net result of this political failure was the election of Rudy Giuliani. A creature of the real estate and corporate lobby in NYC, Giuliani quickly stopped the lead removal work and got the City Council to dump Local Law 1. A terrible, watered-down lead removal law was passed in its place.

Advocates responded with a court challenge and mass action to keep the principle of a lead-free environment for New York City’s children at the forefront of the struggle.

Last month the New York State Court of Appeals, the highest court in New York state, unanimously ruled that the Giuliani-controlled City Council law was illegal, and the city had to revert back to Local Law No. 1. This is a tremendous victory for New Yorkers and everyone in the country fighting to protect children from the greed of landlords and the politicians they own.

New York City Council members, many of them quite new to office, have received strong mandates from their constituencies, their neighbors and families for a tougher lead law. A leader of the City Council, Bill Perkins, representing the Harlem area, is leading a coalition of council members in promoting a new law that raises the maximum age of children protected by a lead law to seven years of age. The law would classify lead as a clear and present hazard. It would also sharply shorten the time that landlords will have to comply.

But, here again we have a Republican administration in City Hall balking. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg has already expressed strong opposition to the Perkins bill. No surprise there. New Yorkers are paying the price for 12 years, hopefully no more, of Republican control of City Hall.

The Council leadership, run by a councilman seeking the mayor’s job, is stalling, clearly testing the waters (for possible contributions, perhaps) against the well-heeled Bloomberg.

Children’s advocates need to reach out to the labor movement and others to broaden the support for protecting children from this deadly dust, lead. It is the perfect kind of issue to galvanize a people’s front against greed and profits.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org


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