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January 05. 2013 12:32AM

Money for lead removal available, but few takers

MANCHESTER - A $3.9 million government program that provides no-interest, no-payment loans to remove lead hazards from Manchester apartment buildings is getting few takers, but city officials say they are confident the program will increase in popularity, after changes went into effect last summer.

At the end of December, the city was half-way through the 42-month timeline established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant.

While city officials hope the grant will finance the elimination of lead dangers in 250 apartments by its August 2014 expiration date, only 78 apartments had been cleared as of Dec. 31.

"At this point, we'd like to have more applicants in the pipeline," said Todd Fleming, a senior planner with the city. But he said the city is on track and meeting benchmarks of the grant.

Lead can cause neurological damage in children, leading to learning disabilities, behavioral problems and even death. As of this month, state health officials have identified 84 apartments that are under order in the city, meaning that children living in the apartment were found to have high lead levels and the landlord has been ordered to remove or isolate the lead hazard.

The program offers financing of up to $15,000 to clear or abate lead from an individual apartment. The loan comes with 0 percent interest, and it only has to be repaid when the property is sold. The landlord must come up with a 10 percent match for the project.

A landlord told the New Hampshire Union Leader that she has twice tried to qualify for the loan, only to have her application fall apart.

"The guidelines are so strict," said the owner, who did not want to be named, fearing it will hurt prospects for a future grant.

The first time the landlord applied, one tenant exceeded the income limits for tenants - $60,800 for a family of four - that the program sets. The second time, the project costs exceeded the maximum loan by $20,000, thanks in part to federal regulations that govern the project. For example, the regulations prevented the use of inexpensive replacement windows and required the restoration of the windows in the three-family building, she said.

"I don't have the money. I am trying to survive and hold on to the building," the landlord said. In the meantime, investors with deep pockets have received lead hazard loans and used the funds to rehab empty buildings, the landlord said.

Fleming said some investors have received financing; the program sets no limitation on the income of the landlord, only the tenants.

"HUD's viewpoint on this program is they want to get lead out of housing units," Fleming said. "Their objective is to benefit low and moderate income households, the families occupying the apartments."

He said the program also requires that properly licensed contractors do the work, which can affect the cost. But most projects draw bids from five to seven contractors.

He said federal funds do come with strings. For example, replacement windows may run afoul of historic preservation efforts in some buildings, but that doesn't happen often.

"It is a federally funded program. There are rules we have to follow, but we attempt to streamline the process as much as we can," Fleming said.

The grant is the third for Manchester to remove lead for apartments. Earlier grants in 2003 and 2006 totaled $2.64 million and resulted in lead hazard reductions in 378 city apartments.

Last March, both the city of Nashua and the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority received a $2.48 million grant for lead abatement. The Housing Finance Authority program has slightly different terms - landlords can only receive up to $12,500, but it never has to be repaid.

Typical lead abatement work involves window and door replacements, scraping and painting of hazardous surfaces, vinyl siding and replacement of stair treads and rizers.

The city says benefits of lead-hazard reduction include a lead-safe environment, lower energy costs, reduced liability and improved property value.

With the program under the city's control, Fleming said a push is under way to market the program.

He said the city took over the program in July, after a contract ended with a consultant who had been doing the work. The city hired a program manager, a clerk of the works and an administrative support person.

"We thought by bringing it in-house there would be more oversight and more cost efficiency," he said.

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Mark Hayward may be reached at mhayward@unionleader.com.

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