In Buffalo, Open Data Practices Help Prevent Lead Poisoning
2021 Certification Level: Silver
By Ambreen Ali
As one of America’s great 19th-century manufacturing hubs, Buffalo, New York is filled with historical landmarks. Early skyscrapers and Romanesque architecture are a source of pride for New York’s second-largest city. But many other buildings haven’t aged as well.
Much of the city’s aging housing stock contains lead paint and other materials that can sicken children. Moreover, lead water service pipes could poison residents if the toxic chemical ever leached into drinking water, as it did in Flint, Michigan. The dangers have been clear for decades. The City of Buffalo received a federal lead remediation grant in the 1990s, but lost the funding due to missed targets.
During the last five years, however, Buffalo has successfully relaunched efforts in no small part due to its strong commitment to data-driven decision making, open data, and stakeholder outreach. The new lead remediation program has rallied city officials, community partners, and residents around a shared vision and created transparency around goals and progress.
As a result, Buffalo secured a new remediation grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 2019, becoming one of the few cities in the country to have received such funding after earlier support ended. Data generated through the initiative has also resulted in new lead-related city ordinances and successful prosecution of noncompliant landlords by the New York State Attorney General.
“Early on we’d often wonder what is going to happen when landlords realize what we’re doing and decide to fight back,” says Buffalo Policy Director Robert Mayer, who leads the lead remediation program. “But they never did, in part because the narrative we were telling with the data was so compelling.”
The Foundation for Change
The successful restart of Buffalo’s efforts began in 2017 with a comprehensive community action plan to eliminate lead poisoning. The report noted that a stunning 61% of children born in Erie County in 2012 had lead in their blood by the age of three; the majority of those kids lived in rental properties in Buffalo. Children in low-income neighborhoods were more likely to be affected.
The granularity of the public health data, and the racial and socioeconomic disparities it highlighted, created a collective sense of urgency. It also demonstrated that Buffalo understood the scope of the problem and could utilize advanced GIS and data analytics systems to address it efficiently. By mapping housing data with public health data, the City could identify areas to target in its landlord outreach and lead remediation efforts.
“Buffalo doesn’t have a health department, so most previous approaches were based on housing statistics, which provided a good indication of what needs to be done but not a lot of information on the impact of lead poisoning on residents,” Mayer says. “That’s what we needed to demonstrate to HUD and other funders.”
The action plan made clear that the scale of Buffalo’s lead problem went beyond the county’s ability to address it, making the case for additional funding, which it received from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and HUD.
Around the same time, Buffalo began working with What Works Cities (WWC) to set up an open data program and create a governance committee with representatives from all city departments. Mayor Byron W. Brown issued Buffalo’s first open data policy in August 2017.
“Prior to Mayor Brown beginning the What Works Cities Certification process, it was very easy for information to get siloed,” Mayer says. “By breaking down those siloes, it has eased information-sharing internally, but also with external partners.”
Open Data, Community Outreach Deliver Results
Lou Petrucci, then Buffalo’s deputy commissioner of permit and inspection services, realized how the open data initiative could support lead remediation efforts. He pushed to make data from his department publicly available. By pairing data detailing housing inspections, code violations, and housing court cases with broader lead assessment information, 311 service requests and U.S. census socioeconomic data — and then making it all public — the City made a powerful case for action and strengthened the program’s efficacy.
“By putting all that information out there, residents have the same access to information that the people in City Hall do,” says Kirk McLean, Buffalo’s open data director. “The community advocates now have access to an incredible amount of information to tell a story about what’s happening in their neighborhoods and make informed decisions.”
In November 2019, the City launched a pilot effort supported by the new HUD grant. Officials reviewed available data to identify 1,500 problem properties belonging to landlords that had been difficult to reach. Then it launched a multi-prong stakeholder engagement strategy. Community health workers conducted seminars and trainings in those neighborhoods to reach tenants. City building inspectors attended community events to get to know residents. Case workers went door-to-door with lead safety kits and information on how to get a free inspection.
This on-the-ground outreach resulted in contact with all the homes in the pilot and proved instrumental in gaining residents’ trust to allow interior lead inspections in nearly 400 properties that year. Without data to identify high-risk homes to target, the endeavor would have been too time-consuming and costly to undertake.
“If it wasn’t for me and the two inspectors going out to every block club event and other community events on weekends, I don’t think there would have been the trust and confidence we saw,” says Mike Ramos, lead supervisor in the Department of Permit & Inspection Services.
The inspections led to additional data about each home that has helped Buffalo justify ongoing funding from the federal government for lead abatement resources. The pilot has proven that a data-driven approach can deliver results, making Buffalo homes safer for its residents.
It also led to stronger local laws governing rental unit inspections. In the summer of 2020, City staff participated in a WWC City Solutions Sprint focused on housing stability, which detailed how proactive rental inspections can combat lead paint in homes. Staff members then began working with Buffalo’s city council to draft updates to ordinances related to rental units and lead-based paint inspections; the council unanimously passed the Proactive Interior Inspections legislation in late 2020.
Open data detailing the enormity of the city’s lead problem helped spur the council into action, Mayer says. Supported by HUD funds, the City now has a goal of inspecting 6,000 units each year.
Data also spurred action at the state level. City leaders sent data gathered during the pilot about one landlord’s properties to the New York State Attorney General’s office, which then used the information in a successful prosecution. That action put all landlords on notice to take lead remediation more seriously, says Cathy Amdur, the current deputy commissioner of permit and inspection services. She explains that the landlord had been operating under multiple names and through various associates to skirt the law.
“Twenty years ago, we would not have had a way to know that 10 different iterations of the same company were all the same,” Amdur says. “That’s what open data allows us to do.”
Ambreen Ali is a freelance writer and editor based in New Jersey. She writes about technology and immigration, among other topics, and her work has been published in The Washington Post, Bloomberg, AFP, The Wire and Seattle Magazine.
As a member of the nationwide What Works Cities (WWC) network, the City of Buffalo has received technical assistance from one of WWC’s expert partners to strengthen data-driven governance capacities. The City has also participated in WWC’s City Solutions Sprints and learning Sprints to strengthen foundational data practices and use data to tackle pressing challenges.
Buffalo is one of 33 cities to achieve 2021 What Works Cities Certification, the national standard of excellence for well-managed, data-driven local government. Read stories from other certified cities here.