SOUTH BEND — The city of South Bend has won another $3.4 million in federal money to remove lead paint from homes, swelling its pot of money for the cause to nearly $7 million since 2018.
But it’s still been unable to enroll many households in the program, city officials recently told the Common Council.
Of 160 applications the city has sent out, 42 were completed and returned, and of those, only 10 households have been enrolled, Pam Meyer, the city’s neighborhoods director, told the council at a recent meeting.
Some applications were incomplete, Meyer said, while others didn’t meet the criteria of having children 6 or younger in the home.
That’s roughly the same number of households that had enrolled six months ago, when city officials and council members held a press conference urging more people to apply. That April 29 press conference came four days after The Tribune reported that the number of children tested for lead in their blood dropped by a third last year, and inspections performed by the health department decreased by 40%, because of the pandemic.
Meyer told the council that 14 months of being unable to do home inspections because of the pandemic, from March 2020 through May 2021, along with fewer opportunities to test children for high blood lead levels, haven’t helped to increase participation in a program that’s already hard to market.
The city of Fort Wayne, which is larger than South Bend, has received slightly less state and federal grant money while enrolling more than seven times as many homes since 2018, said Jim Atz, community development administrator for Fort Wayne.
The city has enrolled 76 homes and completed lead paint removal in 38 of them, Atz said.
“We are also behind on our benchmarks,” Atz said. “We have had a tough time. When we filled out the application for the 2018 grant we definitely didn’t expect a pandemic to shut things down or make them tougher. Being behind on benchmarks seems to be a common theme when I have conference calls with other grantees around the country.”
No longer able to market the program at in-person events, such as the annual Baby Fair & Family Expo at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, Fort Wayne has used grant funding for television and radio ads.
South Bend on Wednesday, as part of National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, will begin running promotional ads on Facebook and Instagram, including a video narrated by Common Council Member Canneth Lee.
Outside help to boost applications
The city was awarded a $2.3 million grant from the Indiana Housing & Community Development Authority in 2018, two years before the pandemic hit. Recognizing there are broader challenges, the city has contracted with Behavioural Insights Team, a United Kingdom-based company, to come up with an intervention to boost applications.
The firm, commonly called the “Nudge Unit,” has recommended the city include a two-page “application guide” that breaks the application down into smaller pieces and encourages people to finish it, said Liz Maradik, the city’s neighborhood development director.
The city this summer conducted two focus groups with residents and conducted phone interviews, Maradik said.
The contract calls for the city to pay the firm no more than $50,000, money that will come from city resources rather than the grants, said Caleb Bauer, Mayor James Mueller’s spokesman. BIT also helped the city early last year, free of cost, to develop some messaging related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bauer said.
“The basis of what they’re doing is called behavioral economics, which is looking at what minor changes can be made in existing things that basically nudge a person’s decision-making process towards the decisions that are the outcomes we’re looking for,” Bauer said.
It’s a longstanding concern in South Bend, where about 80% of the housing was built before 1978, when the government banned lead paint. In 2016, state data revealed that parts of the city had some of Indiana’s highest rates of children with elevated levels of lead in their blood.
In one census tract, in the city’s Near Northwest Neighborhood, almost a third of children who were tested between 2005 and 2015 had elevated levels of lead.
Heidi Beidinger-Burnett, a University of Notre Dame public health professor and president of the St. Joseph County Board of Health, called enrollment in the South Bend program “really disappointing.” Beidinger-Burnett’s work at Notre Dame has included a focus on household lead paint removal.
“They’ve sent out 160 applications and only have 10 enrolled?” Beidinger-Burnett said.
“That’s not even 10%.”
She said two factors are at play. First, it’s hard to convince potential applicants, whether they be parents who are homeowners or renters, of the risks of lead to children younger than 6 and pregnant women.
Eating lead paint chips or inhaling dust from lead paint can slow cognitive development in young children and has been linked to hyperactivity.
“When you ask people about lead, they know lead is bad, lead is toxic, it’s dangerous for children,” Beidinger-Burnett said. “But when you ask them if they are directly affected by it, 99% of the time they’re going to say no. So people don’t have a perceived risk, and this is really, really hard because how do you message that? You can’t smell it, you can’t see it, you can’t taste it, and your lives are busy.”
Even more problematic, she said, is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s requirement that applicants verify that their income is low enough to be eligible for the grants, which can pay for things including repainting or replacing windows. Household income can’t exceed 80% of the area’s median household income.
The city has created a webpage that lists eligible income levels. Households can’t earn more than 80% of the area’s median household income, meaning up to $58,800 for a four-person household. The household must include a child age 6 or younger, one of that age who frequently visits, or a pregnant woman.
“Taxes and pay stubs, an electrical bill that’s got your name on it to prove that you live there, etcetera etcetera,” Beidinger-Burnett said. “What creative ways can we find to minimize that burden?”
For example, households that are income-eligible likely have already had to prove it for other state or federal programs, such as Medicaid. That information could be shared with lead grant administrators, Beidinger-Burnett said.
“Unfortunately government is slow to move but man we’ve got to get creative with this,” she said. ““It seems like in some ways we’re running in place and it’s time to go next level. I feel like we need to be almost bringing HUD in to say, listen, look at all the things we’re doing.”
A HUD spokesman said the agency could not provide someone to be interviewed for this story by deadline. HUD sent The Tribune a written statement that generally describes the Biden administration’s support of lead abatement efforts but didn’t address income eligibility documentation requirements.
To learn more about South Bend’s lead abatement program, including how to apply, go to: https://southbendin.gov/leadsafesouthbend/.