Life in a Leaded Landscape: Understanding Housing, Stigma, and Struggle in the Rust Belt

Matthew McLeskey

Side window showing signs of deterioration and possible lead exposure threat taken during fieldwork (Buffalo, 2019). .

Side window showing signs of deterioration and possible lead exposure threat taken during fieldwork (Buffalo, 2019).

Graduate Student Project


Did you know that urban tenants and landlords must manage the threat of poison in the walls of their homes? Decades after a federal ban on the use of leaded paint, threats of lead exposure still haunt many American cities.

I'm Matthew H. McLeskey, a sociology Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at UB. With the support of the Humanities Institute's Advanced Dissertation Fellowship and the Mark Diamond Research Fund, my dissertation focuses on how low-income tenants and landlords manage the causes and consequences of lead poisoning in urban rental housing. Media coverage of Flint's 2015 lead water crisis jolted the public with revelations of the health risks caused by America's crumbling infrastructure, but urban scholars studying America's affordable housing crisis have only begun to understand how lead poisoning damages the nation's poorest neighborhoods.

Lead exposure entails more than physiological consequences (learning disabilities) for children:  parents bear further hardship (healthcare stress) and landlords face burdens maintaining their properties (financial constraints). Consequently, this research examines how this urban epidemic impacts America's affordable housing crisis, notably the relationship between housing security and public health.


How does lead poisoning contribute to urban inequality? This dissertation documents the material and cultural processes defining the threat of lead exposure for tenants and landlords in disinvested communities. Children suffer physiological consequences if left untreated (learning disabilities, behavioral irritability). Yet, lead exposure entails more than physiological and material consequences. This dissertation examines how this urban epidemic further stigmatizes marginalized neighborhoods in post-industrial cities. Urban scholars have conceptualized how the cultural disgrace of living in impoverished neighborhoods affixes to personal identity and results in symbolic taint difficult to overcome; this includes neighborhoods notorious for leaded housing. Therefore, this research seeks to illuminate how the material and cultural consequences of lead poisoning intertwine to form an unacknowledged epidemiological dimension of urban marginality.

See the Full Poster

Click on the file below to see the full poster in your browser. 

Digital Accessibility

The University at Buffalo is committed to ensuring digital accessibility for people with disabilities. We are continually improving the user experience for everyone, and applying the relevant accessibility standards to ensure we provide equal access to all users. If you experience any difficulty in accessing the content or services on this website, or if you have suggestions about improving the user experience, please contact the Experiential Learning Network via email ( or phone (716-645-8177).