Baltimore's landlords have gone to the General Assembly seeking relief from a torrent of lead-paint lawsuits and from costly lead-paint abatement regulations that they say are driving them out of business.
With three bills introduced recently in the Senate, property owners are trying to erect a shield against hundreds of suits filed in the city by tenants with lead-poisoned children.
Landlords also want the right to evict tenants and abandon their properties if removing or abating toxic lead paint might cost more than the building is worth.
"We don't want to be a target every time we rent a house," said Stewart Levitas, president of the Property Owners Association of Greater Baltimore Inc.
The legislation promptly drew fire from law professors at the University of Maryland, which has a legal clinic representing low-income tenants with lead-poisoned children.
"These bills do what the property owners have continually done -- they blame the victim and punish the tenant," said Clinton Bamberger, a professor in the clinical law program. The bill authorizing evictions would discourage tenants from complaining about lead-paint hazards or even having their children tested to see if they are poisoned, he said.
Bamberger accused the bills' Senate sponsors, American Joe Miedusiewski and John A. Pica Jr., both D-City, of "an absolute disregard of the health of tenants who live in their districts."
Scott Burns, a professor in UM's environmental law clinic, charged that Pica was "in the pocket of the special interests" because he got $3,250 from city landlords in his hotly contested re-election campaign last year.
"It's a complicated problem, but John Pica's solution has been to look at only one side of the issue, and that's the side of the people who are contributing to his campaign war chest," Burns said.
Pica denied doing the landlords' bidding. He said he had introduced two bills at the behest of a fellow senator, whom he would not identify.
He said he was willing to consider amendments to the legislation, which would let landlords evict tenants and board up houses without penalty if the estimated cost of abatement is greater than the property's assessed value.
"What sense does it make to allow a family to continue to live in an apartment where there's an obvious presence of lead paint?" Pica asked. "There's a greater likelihood of harm to the child."
But Bamberger said, "What this bill does is reward the landlord who milks the property, who does nothing about maintenance and then when he gets the expense of the abatement, the house is so deteriorated, so depreciated that it isn't worth spending anything to fix it up."
Miedusiewski, who got $1,500 from the landlords' political action committee, Concerned Citizens for Better Government, did not return a reporter's telephone call.
His bill would amend state law so that the presence of lead paint in a rented home or apartment is no longer a violation of the "warranty of habitability."
Saul Kerpelman, a Baltimore lawyer who has filed many lead-paint lawsuits, said today Miedusiewski's bill will not shield landlords from liability. Courts already recognize that intact lead paint is not a housing violation, he said, so his cases rely on showing that children were poisoned by peeling, flaking or deteriorating paint.
Levitas, the owners association president, contended that landlords are already boarding up and abandoning many properties because they can no longer insure their properties in the face of the onslaught of lawsuits and they cannot afford to comply with what he contends are excessive city and state lead-paint abatement regulations.
Abatements can cost $15,000 or more, while some rowhouses in poorer neighborhoods are worth less than $10,000.
"The facts are we really don't have knowledge of the hazard in the houses, and we don't want to be held liable for it," Levitas said.
Tenants' lawyers dispute such claims, saying that much of the city's housing was built before 1960, when lead paint was widely used.
About 500 cases of lead poisoning among young children are reported in Baltimore every year, but health officials say that represents only a fraction of the problem. Most vulnerable children are not screened, and harmful health effects, including permanent brain damage and learning disabilities, can occur at lead exposures far below what is officially deemed poisoning.
Landlords, meanwhile, are fighting the Schaefer administration's only legislative initiative on lead poisoning -- a bill authorizing the Maryland Department of the Environment to certify lead-paint inspectors and abatement contractors.
State officials told the House Environmental Matters Committee yesterday they need to license lead-paint testing and abatement firms because much of that work now is being done improperly by untrained or poorly trained workers.
But Ira Cooke, lobbyist for the landlords, denounced the measure, saying the training needed for certification would push already excessive abatement costs still higher.