Part one in a two-part series on city leadership to address healthy housing from Rochester, New York.
We are encouraging mayors and city managers across the country to learn from Rochester’s leadership and take the Mayor’s Action Challenge on Lead-Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods pledge. Rochester’s efforts have significantly reduced childhood lead poisonings and made an impact to improve the health and well-being of children and families.
The action challenge is the latest phase of the National League of Cities (NLC) long partnership with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes.
Through regional and national Housing, Hazards and Health convenings NLC has learned from national leaders and shared promising approaches to healthy housing policies, with a specific focus on how municipalities can use their housing policies, practices and programs to address indoor environmental hazards.
From the beginning of NLC’s Healthy Housing efforts, Mayor Lovely Warren and the City of Rochester have been considered an important example for other municipalities cities looking to reduce the number of residents poisoned by lead hazards.
NLC sat down with Mayor Warren to learn more about the important role of city leadership in Rochester’s efforts and why she feels her fellow mayors should take the action challenge pledge.
NLC: Mayor Warren, thank you for being a beacon for this work and for signing onto the Mayor’s Action Challenge for Lead Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods – the work you lead is already a gold standard. How did this become such a defining issue for you?
Mayor Warren: I can remember listening to the frustrations of tenants as far back as my earliest days in public service, when I was an intern handling constituent complaints for New York State Assemblyman David Gantt. As a member of the Rochester City Council and as mayor, I have always operated under the belief that safe, quality and affordable housing is a fundamental human right.
NLC: How did you approach your early partners in healthy housing work? What lessons would you share with cities seeking to build relationships in this area?
Mayor Warren: Any public policy is going to be most effective when there is broad consensus and buy-in among all the relevant stakeholders. This is probably true with housing more than any other policy area, because you are working at the intersection of private property and public health. Fortunately, Rochester has a long history of collaboration, starting with the formation of the Coalition to Prevent Lead Poisoning in the year 2000. Stakeholders in this effort have included the city and county governments, the health and education sectors, the real estate community and the philanthropic community. A key factor of our success has been the genuine empathy that each party at the table has displayed toward the concerns of the others. There is a very real recognition that if one party can’t succeed, the entire system will fail and no one’s goals will be accomplished.
NLC: What has been your greatest, perhaps unexpected, resource in advancing healthy housing efforts in Rochester?
Mayor Warren: Our greatest resource in this area, by far, is the commitment of the men and women who drive our code-enforcement operation and our renewable certificate of occupancy rental inspection program, along with the collaborative spirit of our many community partners. Further, The New York State Department of Health has provided funding to assist in targeting the homes of our most vulnerable population and our oldest properties.
NLC: In your experience, have there been state or federal initiatives that have supported Rochester’s work? Have there been barriers or challenges at the state or federal level?
Mayor Warren: The New York State Department of Health, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development have all been instrumental in providing financial resources and administrative support to improve inspection training. They have all played a tremendous role in our success in lowering the Childhood Lead Poisoning rate by over 85 percent since the adoption of the Lead Ordinance.
NLC: What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome to get your city to where you are now, and how did you address it?
Mayor Warren: The biggest challenge was the fear of the unknown. Landlords were convinced that the costs to make these repairs would be too substantial and would lead to abandonment. This, of course, proved to not be the case and was well documented in the multiple external reviews we’ve had on our lead ordinance. We were able to mitigate these fears by providing an efficient means of statistical reporting so hard data, rather than perceptions and anecdotal stories, drove the narrative of change as it unfolded in real-time.
NLC: The YEF Institute is using the Mayors Action Challenge for Lead Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods to emphasize the importance of visibility and political leadership on environmental health hazards. In addition to signing the pledge and taking action on one or more of the four policy briefs, how can mayors and other leaders best champion improved outcomes?
Mayor Warren: No mayor in any city should be afraid to steal a good idea and improve upon it. Study the best practices taking place in other cities and seek every opportunity to consult with your peers; have your staff do the same with their counterparts.
NLC: Given your expertise and leadership, which action challenge track would you encourage fellow mayors interested in embracing this work to begin with, and why?
Mayor Warren: Taking Stock of Housing. How will you ever know whether your residents are being provided safe and habitable housing if it’s not being inspected on a regular basis?
For support in fulfilling your healthy housing pledge join NLC’s new Healthy Housing Learning Network, a platform supported by The JPB Foundation to connect city leaders to share efforts and actions.
To learn more about Rochester and other cities’ successful healthy, lead-free housing campaigns download NLC’s recent Healthy Housing report.
For more information on these and other healthy housing opportunities, including the possibility of attending future Housing, Hazards and Health Municipal convenings, contact Anthony Santiago at firstname.lastname@example.org and 202-626-3022 and Anne Li at Li@nlc.org or 202-871-9254.