What it took to quantify how much cities in Rhode Island are doing to prevent lead poisoning

Published on
May 20, 2024

In most conversations about the housing crisis in Rhode Island, my sources said two things: There isn’t enough affordable housing in the state, and most of the housing that does exist is old. The old housing stock, my sources explained, presented numerous health risks, especially to renters. 

I knew going into this project that I wanted to look at public accountability. I’d read stories about landlords who let their properties fall into disrepair and what that meant for tenants. My question for this reporting, done under the auspices of the 2023 National Fellowship, went one step further: How were the public bodies responsible for overseeing housing quality approaching their work? And how effective were they? 

Several sources explained to me that one of the most significant issues associated with old housing stock in Rhode Island was lead-based paint. Most of the state’s rental housing stock was built before 1978, the year the federal government banned the use of the toxic heavy metal in paint. Rhode Island policy prioritizes making housing lead safe, not lead free, so most rental units still contained some amount of old lead paint, my sources explained.

Exposure to lead, even at low levels, can lead to lower IQ levels, reduced academic performance, and behavioral conditions like ADHD. Children in families with low-incomes experience lead poisoning at disproportionate rates. Black and Hispanic children are more likely than white children to experience lead poisoning, too.

In an effort to protect children, the state requires landlords to hire licensed lead inspectors to evaluate rental units every few years. If a unit passes inspection, the landlord gets a “lead certificate.” But estimates show the vast majority of rental housing units lack the legally required lead certificates. So I decided to focus there, on a piece of paper landlords are supposed to obtain in an effort to protect tenants, especially children. 

I wanted to know why so many units in Rhode Island didn’t have lead certificates, even though they should have. I learned much of the responsibility for enforcing that requirement fell to cities and towns. Municipalities could issue notices of violation to landlords for not having a lead certificate, even if no one complained. I decided to focus my reporting on how often cities and towns had taken that step. That meant requesting documents, a process with more twists and turns than I expected. 

1. Set the scope early.

While lead poisoning is a problem across Rhode Island, I knew I didn’t have the time to request documents from all 39 cities and towns. So, I had to figure out how to narrow my focus to make the project manageable while still accurate and potentially impactful. My editor and I created a list of potential criteria to use. Lead paint is a problem in older housing, so we considered that variable. Lead certificates only applied to rental housing, so that entered the equation, too. And we had data showing which cities in the state had the highest rates of lead poisoning. 

Ultimately, we decided to focus on the five cities in the state where more than half of residents are renters and where the lead poisoning rate falls above the state average: Central Falls, Newport, Pawtucket, Providence, and Woonsocket. 

2. Assume you do not understand data and documents.

I filed the same records request in all five cities: all instances in the past decade where the local code enforcement office had issued a notice of violation to landlords for failing to comply with the lead certificate laws, and information about the outcome of those cases. Going in, I figured different cities would keep the information in different ways. That turned out to be true. What surprised me was just how much time I had to spend understanding what the data and documents I received actually meant.

I spent hours talking to my sources just to understand how to interpret and accurately describe the information I received. One city didn’t respond to my requests to explain basic indicators in the data about case status. I only got answers to those questions when I went to city hall to talk to code enforcement officers face-to-face.

Another city used a database to track portions of the information I needed about violations issued, but then had a separate spreadsheet with details about case outcomes, but that spreadsheet didn’t include details about any fines issued. And then last year, the city switched to an entirely new database. A wholly separate spreadsheet tracked building ownership. It took at least six phone calls to understand how to use the data — and make sure I actually received the information I was asking for.  

3. Ask for records, and ask again, and again, and again. 

Almost every time I requested documents for this project, I soon figured out that the initial response was incomplete. One city sent me 700 pages of municipal court records involving lead violations, but the response also didn’t include any information about notices of violation issued, which was half of what I originally asked for. I only got the actual data I needed by going to city hall and talking to people in person. (And even then, I only got one year of data, even though I had asked for 10.) 

Another city sent me a manually updated spreadsheet that included a subset of violations — something I only uncovered by talking to the records officer on the phone and pushing them to connect me with someone at the city. Then I got a full response: several spreadsheets that contained some of the same information but as a whole would allow me to understand what enforcement action the city had taken. 

The hardest was when a family told me a lead inspector had visited their apartment at a certain time, but the records I initially received did not corroborate their account. I talked to the family about this and they were insistent. I went back to the state health department to double check that they hadn’t missed anything. It turned out they had: There was an inspection report from the time the family remembered, which proved essential in fact-checking the story. But it took going back, again and again.