Paul Haan left the Creston Neighborhood Association in 2000 and used his downtime to hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. Courtesy Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan
Literally and figuratively, Paul Haan took a long and winding road to reach his current mission: getting the lead out of homes in Grand Rapids.
As executive director of Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan, Haan leads an initiative to protect children from environmental harm in substandard housing, which includes asthma triggers and poisoning from lead-based paint.
Early in Haan’s professional life, he was addressing housing issues at the neighborhood level. He initially served with the Creston Neighborhood Association between 1988 and 2000.
“We were looking at housing from a community perspective — do we have good housing? Is this a good place to live? — but I was also meeting a lot of people one by one, some of whom had issues,” Haan said.
The issues at the time were largely about housing conditions related to health, from both tenants and owners, but at the time, houses had more flagrant code violations than lead paint peeling behind a new façade, Haan said — anything from poor heating and cooling, to leaking roofs, to pests.
Haan started to take notice when the Creston Neighborhood Association started working on a couple of situations where the property had been flagged as having lead hazards by the Kent County Health Department.
Haan remembered two houses distinctly within a block of each other that had been shut down because the lead hazards were so severe.
“One was on the corner of Buffalo and Page. The other was on Carman, one block away,” Haan said. “One had engine blocks sitting in the side yard. It was just an armpit. The other one was a corner house that, you drove by it, you know that house is in bad shape. You could see the peeling paint … the garage was in deplorable shape.”
Lead-based paint was banned for use in housing in 1978, but many old homes in Grand Rapids still are contaminated, Haan said. Many times, an owner or a landlord will just paint over or cover it with new siding, which only mitigates the likelihood of children being poisoned in the home.
Haan left the neighborhood association in 2000 and took some downtime hiking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine.
“At the time, I had this habit of taking off and going for long hikes,” Haan said.
When he came back to West Michigan, Haan went to work with Home Repair Services of Kent County for about a year. One of the areas the group wanted to dive into was the issue of lead in old homes. Haan helped develop two successful programs: foreclosure prevention and lead hazard control.
Home Repair Services worked with an AmeriCorps-based program to specifically help homeowners deal with lead in their houses.
“It’s nuanced. It’s there but you really don’t know, so how do we help them know, and then how do you fix it?” Haan said.
On the foreclosure program, Haan and Home Repair Services were shocked to find there were over 100 foreclosures in Kent County every year. Thanks to the group’s foresight, it was well equipped to respond to the issue when the housing market crashed six years later, Haan said.
From the start, Haan had planned to be with Home Repair Services for only a year. After he was done, he packed up again and took another monthlong hike in Vermont.
When he came back, City Commissioner George Heartwell, who would later be elected Grand Rapids mayor in 2004, was working with the Community Leadership Institute and Aquinas College on lead contamination, particularly with children. Rather than just meeting people in their homes and educating them, Heartwell and the group were formulating how they could attack it on a systemic level.
“There was a couple-day-old message on my answering machine,” Haan said. “George said, ‘Hey, we got this thing … and I really want to talk to you about helping out.’”
Through the project, Haan helped facilitate grant writing, leading to over $10 million in local incentives. He also helped direct local and statewide campaigns to get legislation passed and increase budget allocations for lead issues.
The program officially ran for three years, but in its last year, around 2005, the group was looking at the housing climate in Grand Rapids, and there were signs it was about to take a turn for the worse.
“The folks around the table were like, ‘We’ve made a tremendous impact on the lead situation in Grand Rapids,’” Haan said. “It dropped quite precipitously during that time. We’d brought in millions of dollars of federal money to attack the problem, but they said if we stop paying attention to this, the problem is going to come back and bite us.”
To sustain the program, the group knew there had to be an organization in Grand Rapids specifically dedicated not only to ensuring children aren’t lead poisoned, but ensuring they don’t grow up in substandard housing in the first place.
At that time, the partners on the program branched out from a lead-only gig to a wider array of health hazards for children.
“The focus is still on the kids,” Haan said. “The big three, as we think about them, are lead, asthma — those are the biggest two — and following that is accidental injury.”
Haan said these three issues pose the greatest community and monetary cost to the public. Lead and asthma are leading because of the high cost to the public. Lead poisoning isn’t particularly lethal, but it can stunt cognitive development and when spread over a population, it will lead to “brain drain.”
The triggering of asthma attacks, however, is lethal and largely preventable, Haan said. A lot of times they are set off by environmental factors within the home.
Despite Healthy Homes’ successful efforts, contaminated housing in Grand Rapids, particularly in underprivileged areas like the 49507 ZIP code, remains an obscure topic, compared to the Flint water crisis, which made national headlines.
“Here, you don’t have a boogeyman. With Flint you do, so you can shake your fist at the former governor,” Haan said. “We’ve had stories about kids being lead poisoned. There’s a lot of focus about how this landlord screwed up, and that’s true, but there’s a systemic problem behind all that.”
From Haan’s perspective, the right policy would help more than millions of dollars in public funds. Even with the municipality, the state and the federal government on board, there wouldn’t be enough money to fix the problem.
With lead specifically, the problem isn’t going to go away just by throwing money at it, Haan said. The community must maintain constant vigilance over properties and ensure community standards are maintained so they aren’t hazardous to the people living in them.
“It’s much like my work when I started at Creston,” Haan said. “There are probably houses there that … we got them fixed up where if you drove by them, they could be an eyesore today because you’ve got to continue that investment. It’s not one and done.”
In Grand Rapids currently, there is no standard that if a house is rented or sold, it must be safe from lead contamination, Haan said. The current standard is more akin to “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but if a better safeguard was in place, hundreds of Grand Rapids children last year would not have been lead poisoned, Haan added.
Healthy Homes has registered two big achievements in recent years. A couple of years ago, there was a move to bring all rental housing into the city’s inspection process as policy. Healthy Homes was one of many community alliances to push for the change.
More recently, this past April, Healthy Homes supported parents in the community when they confronted Kent County over not allocating funds in its yearly budget to enforce lead standards.
In response to parental outrage, Kent County approved funding for two staff positions to investigate homes that are lead-poisoning children.
“Going back to my Appalachian Trail analogy, if I just walked through Georgia, the rest of the trail would still be there,” Haan said. “There’s more to be done here when it comes to lead.”