PUTNEY — Soft snow fencing and handwritten signs proclaiming the possible presence of lead paint have had residents of the Windham and Windsor Housing Trust (WWHT) property at 27 Old Depot Rd. concerned for months.
Now, as the window for outdoor work starts to close, they're more worried - but there may be no lead paint at all on the site, and WWHT leaders say the signs emerged not from any new evidence of lead but out of compliance with state regulations designed to keep tenants safe from the toxic metal.
“When the property was redeveloped in 2015, the lead testing at that time indicated no lead in the various spots where they tested,” said WWHT executive director Elizabeth Bridgewater. “However, we're following the guidelines as if there is lead present as a precaution.”
“There is no testing on file that indicates that there is lead paint, but we follow the protocol anyway on these older buildings as a belt-and-suspenders approach,” she said.
Bridgewater also explained that WWHT's hands have been at least temporarily tied due to state regulations.
“There is currently a section of the outside wall that has peeling paint and it has been cordoned off by our maintenance tech,” she said when asked about the issue. “The reason why it has not been repainted yet is that the state of Vermont is in the process of updating its requirements for addressing lead paint.”
Bridgewater said that that all the organization's techs are professionally certified in “essential maintenance practices,” which define methods and standards of property maintenance that minimize the risk of causing lead poisoning in children living in rental properties built prior to 1978.
Some are also certified as trained in the Environmental Protection Agency's Renovation, Repair and Painting program, she said. The federal agency has mandated that certification since 2010.
But “the state of Vermont is now requiring us to re-register for RRP certification through a state process,” Bridgewater said.
“We are not allowed to take any remediation action until this happens,” she said. “However, the new rules went into effect Oct. 1 - before the state outlined the process for recertification - and the application website didn't go online until after that. There was no overlap with the old certification requirement.”
That means that WWHT has been “in a short holding pattern on addressing issues like this until we have all the updated certifications that allow us to do the work,” Bridgewater said.
She said that WWHT is now “waiting for our application for the new certification to be processed by the state and will address the peeling paint once that is in hand.”
Last week, residents told The Commons that the handwritten signage and snow fencing were not in evidence, though on Monday a handwritten sign on the building, and the duct tape adhering it to the outside wall, matched one that a resident had photographed Nov. 1.
“It turns out new fencing and signage have been replaced more than once, so someone is tampering with this,” Bridgewater said Monday. “We'll keep replacing them until we get this certification sorted so we can address the peeling paint.”
Residents worried for children
Residents said that when they saw the initial signage and fencing, they were concerned for the children who live in the building.
They claimed the person performing the work “scraped paint without wearing a mask and didn't appear to collect any of the paint shavings.”
“They put everybody on month-to-month leases years ago, so they can just drop your lease if they feel like it,” said one man who lives in the building.
This resident spoke with The Commons anonymously, explaining that he and others fear retribution if they speak out.
“They set it up like that, so there's no [housing] security at all. There have always been issues here. WWHT pays great attention when they're trying to build something else - otherwise, they don't do anything, even cut the grass.”
The man alleged that when he and other tenants moved in, “we had to sign a document saying there was no lead paint and now there are signs up on fences all over the front of one of the buildings [the “blue” building] saying 'lead paint.' When everybody started to complain about it, they changed the wording to 'possible' lead paint.”
“You'd think in a situation like this they'd get someone over here to fix it,” he said. “Putting signs up and a fence doesn't make the lead paint go away.”
His particular concern is that there are four families, with at least seven children, living in the building where lead paint is currently in question.
He said he has left a message at the WWHT office but that no call was returned.
Neighbor Elizabeth Warner brought the issue to the attention of the Selectboard after watching fencing and signage go up right next to where children's toys are piled and kids are playing.
“I went through a lead abatement at my home years ago, and it's very scary and dangerous, especially for children,” she said.
“I've been aware of this allegation, which was made by a neighbor who first brought it to the Selectboard's attention without fully understanding the situation,” Bridgewater said, continuing to explain “what's going on.”
“When the property was redeveloped in 2015, we worked with the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board (VHCB) lead paint program to test the building and there was no evidence of lead paint in any areas of the outside walls that were tested,” she said.
“However, because they don't test every square inch, whenever there is peeling paint on a pre-1978 building, we act as if lead paint may be present and follow the legal protocol to address it,” she added.
Bridgewater said cordoning off the area and placing signage “to alert folks of the potential presence of lead paint” is part of that protocol.
Asked why children are living in a building where lead paint may be present, Bridgewater said, “because the state of Vermont does not require full lead abatement for every building in Vermont that may have lead paint.”
She noted that in addition to an annual lead paint risk inspection, every landlord is also required to provide the following “at lease-up”:
• A disclosure that lead paint may be present in the building when the building was built before 1978.
• A copy of a pamphlet published by the state on the risks of lead paint and how the tenant can properly clean the unit in order to reduce risk. “The pamphlet also outlines the landlord's responsibility to address peeling paint within a certain amount of time after being notified by the tenant or after an inspection,” Bridgewater said.
• A copy of the results of the most recent annual inspection.
• A copy of any reports of lead abatement that may have occurred in the past.
“In the case of the Old Depot Road property, there was no lead abatement done because no lead paint was found in the original testing at redevelopment,” Bridgewater said.
She also said that tenants were not made to sign a document stating they were aware there was no lead paint when they moved in, calling that statement “inaccurate.”
“Tenants were made aware that lead paint may be present - not because an inspection confirmed lead paint, but because the building was built pre-1978,” she explained. “Our lease-up protocols require the resident to sign a document confirming that they were provided the documentation outlined above.”
“I personally looked through several of the files for this property to confirm that the documentation was indeed in the file, and it was,” she said.
A call to town Health Officer Tom Goddard was not returned by press time.