Local and federal officials, including Rep. Bryan Steil, hold a $4.4 million check being presented to Kenosha to address lead-based paint in local homes. Photo by Daniel Thompson/The Uptown Observer.

KENOSHA ⏤ The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has awarded Kenosha $4.4 million to help eradicate lead-based paint in local homes.

HUD announced the award during a press conference at the Kenosha County Job Center, 8600 Sheridan Rd., Thursday morning. The amount comes from a total of $7.8 million awarded to the state.

HUD will give $4 million to the city under its Lead Based Paint Hazard Reduction grant program, HUD Deputy Secretary Brian Montgomery said. The remaining $400,000 comes from the Healthy Homes Supplemental Funding program. 

The grant funds are to “identify and clean up dangerous lead in low-income families’ homes,” Montgomery said.

“These funds will be used by Kenosha County to address lead hazards in 204 housing units, providing safer homes for low- and very low-income families and children,” he said.

“… Today, we are once again are emphasizing our commitment to improving the lives of families, especially children within this community by creating safer and healthier homes.”

No safe levels for children

Kenosha County Health Officer Jennifer Freiheit emphasized that there is “no safe level at all” of lead in children during Thursday morning’s press conference. Photo by Daniel Thompson/The Uptown Observer.

Kenosha County Health Officer Jennifer Freiheit made it clear that no amount of lead in homes is safe for children.

“It is a poison,” Freiheit said. “There is no safe level at all.”

According to Freiheit, over exposure to lead can cause:

  • Damage to the brain and nervous system;
  • Slow growth and development;
  • Learning/behavioral problems;
  • And hearing and speech problems.

“It can lead to low IQ, trouble paying attention, decreased ability in performance at school, and it’s often been quoted as a direct pipeline to incarceration later in life.”

Jennifer Freiheit, Kenosha County health officer

“It is a huge problem for communities around the country. And I am so grateful that Kenosha and Racine now have the opportunity to continue this amazing work.” 

‘The good news’

The department’s staff has already addressed lead in more than 131 homes locally under a previous grant, Freiheit said.

“The current grant has completed over 131 units already, and with a staff of five ⏤ five full-time staff here I’d like to thank very much,” she said. “And with six local contractors who will continue to support into this new  grant.

“So a small and mighty team is making a huge impact locally.”

The program also offers training to contractors, landlords, residents and government agencies “to build a sustained community capacity and support economic development.”

The department will “really carry this forward and really help the community in decreasing lead issues,” she said.

“The good news is that childhood lead poisoning is preventable. And this grant will allow us to do that even further.”

Freiheit also thanked Racine County officials for their significant help in getting the grant funding. According to U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil, who spoke at the conference, the Racine community will partially benefit from the awarded $4.4 million as well. That benefit will come through the Kenosha Racine Lead Free Communities Partnership.

A good news day

U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil called Thursday’s announcement waking up to good news, after many months of seemingly only bad news. Photo by Daniel Thompson/The Uptown Observer.

For Steil, who represents the state’s 1st District, Thursday was a good news day after months and months of bad news.

“Today is one of those days. 2020, to me, was described as an infomercial, where you think you get to the end and then they say, ‘But wait, there’s more,’” he said. “And it seemed like every day we’ve been waking up in 2020 and they say, ‘But wait, there’s more’ with something that’s bad news.

“Today, we wake up to good news.”

Bryan Steil, U.S. Representative

As Steil spoke, a table to his left displayed before and after pictures of a few of the 131 homes already renovated.

Local staff renovated those homes through previous funding to the local lead-free program.

“I think it’s really powerful to realize the impact this is going to have on 204 families here in our communities in Racine and Kenosha,” he said. “That’s a big deal.”

Lead poisoning not just by water

And while, with Lake Michigan so close, locals focus on levels of lead in drinking water, lead in homes can have a more severe impact, especially in the time of COVID-19. 

“In 2020, many of us are spending more time than we want at home,” he said. “And you think about how that impacts all of us differently. But in particular, children in low-income homes who are at risk of lead poisoning.”

Come together

However, it is encouraging how the community has come together in these times to help make things better, he said.

This display shows examples of homes that have already been renovated to eradicate lead-based paint under a previous grant the city received. So far, more than 131 homes have been renovated under that previous grant. Photo by Daniel Thompson/The Uptown Observer.

“One thing that I think is so unique about our community here in Racine, Kenosha and Wisconsin ⏤ we love to live in Wisconsin, love to live in southeast Wisconsin ⏤ is how well we work together,” Steil said. 

“How well the federal government can team up with the state and the county, and also with nonprofits in our community to do the last mile, is where this really will instigate not only $4.4 million worth of renovations in 204 homes, it’s likely to go beyond that.”

Thursday’s grant announcement, to Steil, was a “testament” to the local community.

“Today’s grant announcement in our community,” Steil said, “I think, is a testament both to the Racine and Kenosha community, the Kenosha and Racine Lead Free Partnership about how about we work together to be able to tackle this for the families, particularly the low-income families in our community.”

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Daniel Thompson is an independent journalist and the founder of The Uptown Observer based in the Kenosha, Wis., area. He started in journalism at the Western Nebraska Observer in 2012 and, most notably,...