The Connecticut residents holding a rent strike amid lead poisoning crisis

<span>Katy Slininger, a resident of Cargill Falls Mill in Putnam, Connecticut, is part of her building’s tenant union. </span><span>Photograph: Shahrzad Rasekh/CT Mirror</span>
Katy Slininger, a resident of Cargill Falls Mill in Putnam, Connecticut, is part of her building’s tenant union. Photograph: Shahrzad Rasekh/CT Mirror

Katy Slininger was one of dozens of residents who moved into the Lofts at the Cargill Falls Mill in Putnam, Connecticut, shortly after it opened in late 2020, enticed by the historic charm of the building and affordability of an apartment in an area with significant affordable housing shortages.

The building is a redeveloped 19th-century mill that opened in 2020 after government subsidies contributed millions of dollars in grants and tax credits to its renovation and was hailed by local officials as a boon to the local economy.

The four-story mill is within walking distance to downtown Putnam, a small historic mill town in north-eastern Connecticut, and the property has touted the building’s historic charm and modern amenities to prospective residents.

But in December 2022, Slininger and other residents received a notice from the local health department stating a toddler had been severely lead poisoned at the building and toxic levels of lead dust were discovered in the unit.

“It’s been one of the worst years of my life. The stress of feeling that I raised my child unknowingly in toxic conditions,” said Slininger. “When you first find out, you feel like throwing up every day, you’re just like when he was crawling, he was picking stuff up off the ground, is lead dust falling in his mouth while he sleeps?”

The notice was a surprise to Slininger and other residents, because although the building was known to be old, it had undergone significant remediation and renovation as a result of a public-private development partnership.

No one had thought twice about there still being hazards

Katy Slininger

“No one had thought twice about there still being hazards, so when we got that letter, it was a huge shock,” she added, arguing the construction and renovation of the building was never properly completed. “There are 82 units here, tons of families, they put pregnant women, young children, in units with toxic levels of lead that were never even touched, with patches of lead paint crumbling off the wall that weren’t even painted over. It was a total bait-and-switch with extreme health risks.”

She explained initial lead tests in units with children under six and of common areas found toxic lead dust or paint levels in all tested areas, but local government agencies have not taken responsibility to resolve the problem or force the landlord to do so. It took pressure from tenants to start lead abatement services in the nine initial units tested and the common areas, but the common areas still tested positive for toxic lead levels after the abatement.

She also accused the landlord of retaliation against tenants, including withdrawal of services, and claimed especially during winter that her son suffers from respiratory issues that she attributes to the building conditions.

“We don’t have anywhere else to go. There is no comparable housing in this town, let alone the county,” added Slininger. “We also realize if we pick up and move, because of our cost position, our chance of moving to another place with just as many problems is extremely high, so at a certain point you have to say I’m going to stay and get this fixed, and the only way to do that is if we all join together.”

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently investigating the site and could levy fines against the owner, Leanne Parker. The EPA issued an administrative order on 21 March telling the property to resolve all the lead issues throughout the building, citing imminent and substantial endangerment to tenants.

Lead is a highly toxic metal that is particularly dangerous to children because they absorb more of it than adults and it can disrupt their developing brains and nervous systems. The federal government banned lead-based paint in 1978 after years of aggressive opposition from the lead industry. Despite the ban, pushes for adequate protections and abatement of lead in homes and water infrastructure have continued into the 21st century as thousands of children in the US are diagnosed with lead poisoning every year.

“From the records that we have access to, it’s not clear that they ever really determined prior to tenants moving into the building that the units were safe in terms of the amount of lead that tenants could be exposed to,” said Dr Nick Pokorzynski, a microbiologist at Yale University and organizer of Science for the People’s Yale Chapter, which has been supporting the tenants union through their efforts to resolve the lead issues.

“My understanding is that the child who was severely lead poisoned is expected to have cognitive defects for the rest of their life. This is an enormous tragedy and oversight of public health because we, collectively, allowed this building to be developed in the hands of people who didn’t care whether or not the tenants living there were going to be safe.”

Dr Emily Sutton, a molecular biologist at Yale, noted the lead exposure levels that are considered hazardous by the Environmental Protection Agency were just recently lowered to 10 micrograms a sq ft for floors and 100 micrograms a sq ft for windows.

“The original unit that was found to be contaminated; the levels were 48,000. Subsequent testing has shown apartments that have levels over 4,000. These are levels that are significantly higher than the EPA standards,” said Dr. Sutton. “There’s no reason that children should be moving into apartments that have lead contamination. The tools and technology exist to know whether or not buildings have lead contamination before you move children into them. The only reason that you wouldn’t do that is because of greed, essentially.”

Sutton and Pokorzynski emphasized that lead poisoning in housing rentals is a systemic issue and that the case and fight of the tenants at the lofts at the Cargill Mill should serve as a wake-up call for proper regulations and enforcement throughout the US.

According to the CDC, 29m housing units have lead-based paint hazards, and about 2.6m are homes to children.

After receiving the initial notice of lead poisoning, Slininger began organizing with her fellow tenants to get lead testing done in units and common areas throughout the building, and for the children under six years old who lived in the building. Through organizing, tenants began demanding fixes for the lead levels and other health hazards, including mold and rotting wood infrastructure.

By February 2023, tenants formed the Cargill Tenants Union and 17 tenants joined a rent strike, where they withheld their rent, placing it in an escrow account through local housing court to try to force the landlord to remedy the lead poisoning issues in the building. But their effort was dismissed because of a lack of jurisdiction to rule on health risk issues.

The group of tenants was successful in pushing for funds to test lead levels throughout the building. Results in November 2023 revealed that almost every apartment unit tested, 68 of 71, had toxic levels of lead dust, lead paint, or both.

“We’re not just going to keep moving from house to house because landlords can’t be responsible for basic standard standards of living,” added Slininger. “This has to be dealt with, because people need to be able to just live their lives. This is absolutely outrageous. That we are fighting tooth and nail on a daily basis just to have clean air.”

Ten tenants in the building have been on a wildcat rent strike, outside of housing court, demanding the lead levels and other health hazards in the building are fixed. They attribute their rent strikes and organizing to the recent EPA order to expedite resolution of the lead issues.

Rent strikes are relatively rare and data on their frequency in the US isn’t available, but they have played important roles as catalysts for legislative and government actions on housing and other related issues.

By mid-January 2023, all 10 tenants had received eviction notices from the landlord, and they are currently awaiting a court summons to fight their evictions.

“It was shocking that the problems have been present and persistent. Some of the common areas that had already received remediation by a contractor also tested positive for lead again,” said Natalie Geeza, a local teacher and one of the tenants currently on rent strike. “They told us in November when the reports were released, there was a letter from the landlord, and it said they will be communicating further abatement plans in January and they have not done that.”

Geeza expressed concern over the fact that she’s had young children of friends and family over to her apartment and that she has long-term health concerns over exposure to lead.

“In my unit, a one-bedroom, there’s exposed concrete on the outer wall, and there’s dust that kind of just ends up over everything, all the time, every week, when you clean, you’re just constantly picking up particles that have broken off,” added Geeza. “It’s disgusting. We’re human beings paying a decent chunk of rent. It’s about 40% of my income, I’ve had to work two jobs at one time to supplement that income, so I have to pay them rent and yet they can’t even ensure that I’m living in a safe area.”

The Connecticut attorney general also recently announced opening an investigation into the housing project.

Attorneys for the landlord, Leanne Parker, and the property manager did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The mayor of Putnam declined to comment.