row of houses, fenced in
Oakland is poised to receive $14 million from a lawsuit, to address the harm caused by lead paint in certain neighborhoods. Credit: Pete Rosos

After two years of negotiations, Oakland and Alameda County officials are poised to finalize an agreement on the division of funds from a lawsuit settlement with manufacturers of lead-based paint. 

Alameda County guidance on reducing lead hazards at home.

CDC information on childhood lead poisoning.

The new agreement, which the Oakland City Council is expected to sign off on today, would allow 60% of the funds, or $14 million, to serve Oakland residents. The other 40% would be reserved for use in the rest of the county. Oakland officials say they plan to launch an “equity-based” program targeting inspection and abatement services in the neighborhoods most affected by the lead crisis.

In 2000, several California jurisdictions joined Santa Clara County in suing paint companies—Sherwin-Williams, ConAgra Grocery Products, and NL Industries—that for decades sold toxic products known to harm children. In Alameda County, 300 children continue to test positive for elevated lead levels each year, typically from exposure to lead paint used in old homes. 

“It’s tragic—there’s no other word for it,” said Darlene Flynn, director of Oakland’s Department of Race and Equity.

Lead poisoning can disrupt cognitive and physical development in young kids, causing behavioral problems and learning disabilities. City analysis shows that communities of color in Oakland, and particularly majority-Latino neighborhoods like Fruitvale, are at highest risk for childhood lead poisoning.

Paint companies fought the lawsuit for years, going so far as to petition the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their appeal, but the court declined to hear the case. In 2019, the companies agreed to settle the case and pay $305 million to communities where they’d caused harm. 

Oakland and Alameda County together got $24 million, and it was up to them to figure out how to split it up. The money must be used to address the damage from the paint, whether through inspecting and remediating housing, testing and treating children, or training professionals. 

The city and county went back and forth on who should get what portion of the funding, with Oakland arguing that the city has the hardest-hit neighborhoods, and thus deserves the biggest chunk, and Alameda County saying that other parts of the region need help too. 

“This is a huge step in the right direction,” said Larry Brooks, director of Alameda County’s Healthy Homes Department, about the new agreement. His department will manage the county’s share of the settlement. “It’s been more than 20 years” since the lawsuit began, he noted. 

The county Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the agreement earlier this month, and the City Council already approved it in a closed session, indicating it’s a done deal. But the agreement leaves a lot to work out.

While Alameda County gets its 40% allotment right away, Oakland only gets 20% of the total to start, not its full 60%. The city and county agree to continue negotiations over how the city’s portion will be spent.

The agreement says the city will use the initial 20% to develop an “equity based lead program,” hiring a consultant to devise an approach. But the city and county will have to approve the final terms of the program before the full 60% allotment is released. Many of the services eventually implemented in the city could come out of the county’s lead prevention office. 

During the negotiation process, Oakland conducted a racial equity analysis, determining the highest-need areas of the city and recommending how to serve them. The resulting report proposes launching several programs, including a “proactive rental inspection program” that would have inspectors methodically check homes for contamination, instead of waiting for residents to complain.

“One of the problems with a complaint-driven system is that the people most impacted are the least likely to complain. They don’t necessarily have the agency for various reasons,” Flynn said. “We want to be very intentional about how we spend the funds, targeting the people most impacted.” The report also recommends funding lead abatement, support for low-income homeowners, and prevention education.

“And we’d actually start collecting data about who we’re serving,” Flynn said.

County representatives have expressed skepticism that Oakland could continue funding the ambitious proactive inspection program in the long run, after the settlement funds are exhausted. 

Alameda County, which can access its full allotment immediately, plans to fund more training for contractors and code enforcers who come in contact with lead paint hazards, and to expand testing for children and treatment for those who are already poisoned, Brooks said. 

“I’m celebrating the fact that we got 40% and can hit the ground running with it,” he said, calling the initial agreement a “huge victory.”

“A bigger victory would have been if we’d gotten more money out of the paint companies,” he said. 

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.