In a conference call with a coalition of black business leaders earlier this month, Democratic presidential frontrunner Pete Buttigieg reiterated a frequent talking point from his stump speech: that issues of racial injustice extend beyond obvious issues of policing and discrimination.
But in doing so, he connected the issue of environmental racism—a key component of his much-vaunted “Douglass Plan” to address systemic racism in America—to a seldom-mentioned issue that plagued his tenure as mayor of South Bend, Indiana: an ongoing lead contamination crisis that has left some of the city’s children with lead levels six times higher than those in Flint, Michigan.
“In my own city, we have a tremendous struggle with lead poisoning not because of the water—as mayor, I can assure you the water was perfectly safe and healthy—but rather dealing with what’s in the homes, what’s in the paint,” he said in a discussion on black home ownership with members of the Black Economic Alliance, a nonpartisan group that advances policies supporting the “work, wages and wealth” of black America. “And we’ve had to work side-by-side as a community to make sure we’re supporting families in those lower-income homes.”
Doing so, Buttigieg told those on the call, is “a matter of safety.”
Left unsaid during the call, however, was that Buttigieg was one in a long line of South Bend politicians and officials who have faced accusations that they shifted responsibility for the long-festering issue. The contamination crisis has prompted criticism that the now-former mayor failed to step in quickly enough when county authorities bungled obtaining federal funds, even after years of ongoing allegations of financial and bureaucratic mismanagement at the county level.
“When South Bend children were found to be at risk of lead poisoning, Pete Buttigieg took immediate action and led a city-wide response,” said Sean Savett, director of rapid response for the Buttigieg campaign. “Pete pushed the school district to provide free lead screenings at all public elementary schools, shifted city funding to provide immediate resources for families living in homes with deteriorating lead paint. He also secured millions in federal funding for lead remediation in South Bend homes and worked with renters’ advocates and public health leaders to pass legislation to protect residents from childhood lead poisoning by requiring all rental homes in the city to be free of lead hazards.”
Like other pledges by Buttigieg to alleviate systemic racism nationally, a closer look at the history of South Bend’s own lingering lead contamination problem shows that the “side-by-side” work between city, county, state and federal health authorities has often been far from effective, with failed bids for federal funding to alleviate the crisis, tensions between South Bend and St. Joseph County leaders, and a labyrinthine health structure that struggled to keep children—many of them black and Latino—safe in their own homes.
The saga illustrates the often messy nature of municipal politics—where different authorities can play a years-long game of pass the parcel on issues of critical importance to citizens’ health—as well as the challenges and limitations of a political résumé limited to two terms as the mayor of a small city.
The issue of lead contamination in South Bend is not a new one for the city. Roughly four in five housing units in the city were constructed before lead paint was banned in 1978, and a five-year study conducted by the St. Joseph County Health Department revealed in 2008 that three ZIP codes—all areas with high numbers of older homes, all with high numbers of minority residents, and all either partially or entirely within South Bend city limits—had the highest numbers of children testing positive for elevated lead paint levels. The study found that of all lead poisoning incidents in the county, 22.2 percent of the children who fell ill were Latino, out of a countywide population of just 5.9 percent at the time, and more than 47 percent of victims were black, compared with a countywide population of 11.8 percent.
Those findings comport with national trends. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that children in lower-income families, particularly black and Latino kids, are more likely to grow up in substandard housing and, therefore, more likely to fall victim to lead paint poisoning. Lead poisoning in children can lead to developmental delays, loss of appetite, weight loss, anemia, and behavioral problems—all symptoms that have shown up in some of South Bend’s kids.
“I’ve been told we’re living in a death trap and the choices we made are now killing us,” Brittany Griffith, mother of a son with early signs of lead-related developmental delays, told the South Bend Tribune in 2017. “I feel like they’re blaming us because we chose to live in the ’hood. It’s not just bullets killing people. It’s lead.”
Through grants obtained by the South Bend Housing Authority, which runs low-income housing facilities in the city under the financial imprimatur of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, more than $5.5 million in federal dollars have been sent to help repair lead paint hazards in the city, with matching funds paid in municipal and county funds. The program, which paid for 90 percent of homeowner repair costs, repaired more than 420 homes in the area.
But in 2016, that money ran out, and when the South Bend Housing Authority applied for another HUD grant to address lead paint issues in the city the next year, federal officials rejected their application. Out of the five categories by which applications were evaluated—need and extent of the lead problem, experience in combating it, soundness of the proposed approach, coordination with community organizations and local authorities, and goals for success—HUD found that “other applicants gave applications that indicated they had a stronger approach to address the problem,” according to Warren Friedman, senior adviser in the department’s lead office.
The failure of the agency—the board of which is appointed by the mayor of South Bend but which is controlled at the county level—to win the grant could not have come at a worse time. The St. Joseph County Health Department, which like the South Bend Housing Authority is separate from city government and has struggled with financial shortfalls in recent years, had been forced to shed staff responsible for testing lead levels in children’s blood due to funding cuts. As a result, the number of children tested for lead cratered; between 2011 and 2015, the number of children tested for lead poisoning fell from 3,000 to 650.
At the same time, a 10-year study was published in December 2016 revealing that children in one census tract in South Bend had lead contamination rates six times higher than those in Flint, Michigan, whose water-borne lead problems had prompted a national outcry earlier that year.
“It’s an eye-opener,” Buttigieg said in response to the study at the time. “As a community with lots of low income residents and lots of old housing, we’re vulnerable... The county health department does everything they can just to keep up with child immunizations and restaurant inspections.”
Although the department’s funding, controlled by the elected members of the St. Joseph County Council and the county’s Board of Commissioners, was beyond Buttigieg’s control, and the city still received a share of a $3 million grant to Indiana from HUD’s Lead Hazard Reduction Demonstration, public comments Buttigieg made at the time urging South Bend citizens to urge state and federal officials to increase funding for lead testing was seen by some as playing political hot-potato.
“We’re doing a really, really poor job of screening children,” then-St. Joseph County Board of Health member Heidi Beidinger-Burnett said at a contentious 2017 town meeting about the crisis. “Last year, we tested maybe 10 percent of all the kids in St. Joseph County.”
At the time, Buttigieg pointed to other authorities—including a county health board whose entire membership he had already replaced once due to ineffectuality and a state health department whose mishandling of a downstate HIV outbreak had prompted national scorn—as the figures most responsible.
“We have state representatives. We have a state health department. We have a new governor. They should be hearing from our community,” Buttigieg said in January 2017. “We currently don’t have a HUD grant to allow us to do this through the housing authority, and it’s something we should be talking to our federal representatives about.”
Buttigieg’s administration did step in to partially fill the void. That summer, researchers and students at the nearby University of Notre Dame worked in collaboration with county health authorities and city officials to test area homes after local children tested at elevated lead levels not deemed critical enough for the county to directly assist them, and Buttigieg earmarked an extra $100,000—a 50 percent increase—in city funds to address health issues in city homes, including lead.
“Throughout the process, we always knew that we had an open door in the mayor’s office,” said Beidinger-Burnett, now the president of the St. Joseph County Board of Health and who worked on lead paint abatement in the near northwest neighborhood of South Bend. Beidinger-Burnett described Buttigieg as someone who stepped “into the center and [brought] resources and people together to solve problems.”
Buttigieg also enacted an inspection bill requiring landlords to ensure that rentals in the city are free of lead paint, and when the city took the reins from county authorities on lead abatements grants, the city won $2.3 million in HUD dollars to remediate homes with lead paint.
“These are urgently needed resources for residents in the city of South Bend,” Buttigieg said when that grant money was awarded, mere weeks before he began his then-longshot presidential campaign. “We will waste no time in putting these resources to work towards safer neighborhoods and healthier children.”
But just as Buttigieg was criticized for pinning the city’s struggle to combat lead contamination on county and state agencies, he annoyed those same agencies for seeking to take charge of the issue. A former South Bend city official told The Daily Beast that some would-be local partners resisted offering in-school lead testing out of fears that kids might cry.
“You know what will make people fucking cry?” the official recalled thinking. “If kids in South Bend grow up with lead poisoning.”
A partnership program intended to address the lead contamination problem by increasing blood testing—linking city resources with the county health department, the South Bend school system, local universities and non-profit organizations—wasn’t announced until March 2018, 15 months after the report’s publication, and its announcement frustrated county health authorities who said that they had not committed to any kind of partnership.
“We have limited resources to commit to anything,” county health board member Michael Harding said at the time. “The board should have been notified and informed.”
County health authorities also expressed dismay that details about the free lead testing program, including how children would be signed up, how much the program would cost and where that money would come from, had not been ironed out before Buttigieg’s announcement.
Buttigieg responded that the county health department could play “whatever role they want” in the program, and would not be required to commit financially.
“The health department is very constrained in terms of their resources, and I don’t want to place any burden on that,” Buttigieg told the Tribune. “We feel the city is in a position to work with the schools to do the testing. But we want them at the table and want them to be able to weigh in and feel empowered to contribute any way they want.”
A look at Buttigieg’s plan to combat environmental racism—the disproportionate exposure of minority communities to environmental health hazards, and the comparatively lengthy time that authorities take to alleviate those hazards—shows that he has incorporated at least some of South Bend’s lessons into his proposals. His campaign specifically calls for coordination between HUD, the CDC and the Environmental Protection Agency “to address lead-based paint in aging housing stock,” and for the creation of a “Lead Paint Mitigation Fund” to provide communities with the resources they need to fully address the problem.
But South Bend leaders have rejected the enthusiasm and creativity shown for other Buttigieg initiatives, like his campaign promise to renovate or tear down 1,000 abandoned homes in the city in 1,000 days, while failing to make more serious progress on lead contamination in homes that stood standing.
“We have no illusions that the dangers of lead-based paint can be easily eradicated. That doesn’t mean we, as a community, should get bored with the issue, shrug out shoulders, turn our gaze away from certain neighborhoods and move on,” the South Bend Tribune editorial board wrote. “The future of thousands of kids is at stake.”