GAO Reports on Adopting Stricter Lead Testing in Voucher Program
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently issued a report on a review the office made on HUD’s efforts to address lead paint hazards. HUD has primary responsibility for identifying lead paint hazards in housing receiving HUD assistance, including private rental units in the voucher program. Some members of Congress have raised questions about whether the voucher program should change from visual assessments to a stricter lead evaluation method.
Senator Dick Durbin from Illinois recently announced he is reintroducing bipartisan legislation to protect children living in federally assisted housing from lead poisoning. Durbin’s Lead-Safe Housing for Kids Act would require HUD to update its lead poisoning prevention measures to prohibit the use of visual assessments for low-income housing constructed before 1978 (the year the federal government banned the use of lead-based paint in homes) and requiring the use of more stringent risk assessments or more accurate evaluation tools that align with prevailing science to identify lead hazards before a family moves into the home.
The GAO’s report identifies considerations for policymakers related to changing to stricter lead evaluation methods for the voucher program, specifically regarding the number and characteristics of voucher housing units and their occupants, costs for lead evaluations based on method used and units included, availability of lead professionals, and observations from selected cities that use lead evaluation methods stricter than visual assessments.
The report found that the Housing Choice Voucher program had 1.1 million voucher holders living in units built before 1978, the year the U.S. banned lead paint in housing. Of these units, roughly 171,000 were occupied by approximately 229,000 young children (under age 6)–putting these children at an increased risk of lead exposure. The voucher program requires visual assessments for identifying deteriorated paint, with no testing of paint or dust. Any change to stricter evaluation methods would need to consider that certain states have a larger portion of pre-1978 voucher units occupied by families with young children.
Projected costs. Estimated costs for adopting stricter lead evaluation methods for the voucher program would vary substantially depending on the method used and what units were included. Estimated initial costs range from about $60 million for a less expensive method (dust wipe sampling) applied only to units with young children to about $880 million for a more expensive method (combination of lead paint inspections and risk assessment) applied to all pre-1978 units. These estimated costs range from 3 percent to 41 percent, respectively, of the fiscal year 2021 budget dedicated to public housing agencies’ administrative expenses for the voucher program. Total costs would also depend on the mobility of voucher households and the frequency of any additional lead evaluations.
Implementation challenges. The GAO’s analysis estimated that nearly 6,000 lead professionals can conduct lead evaluations in the U.S. While there is no indication of a national shortage of lead professionals, the report says that areas with high numbers of pre-1978 voucher units and low numbers of lead professionals may face implementation challenges.
Selected cities offer observations from their implementation of a change in lead evaluation method. For example, education of landlords can help clarify new evaluation requirements and encourage landlords to continue to rent to voucher holders. Further, implementing a new method in phases could target areas with the greatest need and help landlords and the industry adapt to the new requirement and the increased demand for lead evaluations.