Baltimore has disbanded its lead-paint abatement demonstration crew and laid off eight workers, citing fears that the city could be sued for improperly de-leading a home in which a child might become lead-poisoned later.
Housing Commissioner Robert W. Hearn said in a statement issued yesterday that the city is "taking this step to avoid the possibility of liability actions stemming from abatement operations."
The move was criticized by some, including the city's former lead-poisoning prevention coordinator, who questioned the city's commitment to fighting a health hazard that threatens up to 30,000 city youngsters.
But the head of a non-profit housing group said the city's departure from the lead abatement business might actually make the industry more competitive and lower steep de-leading costs.
Eight employees of City Builders, a housing department division that also stabilizes vacant homes, were notified yesterday they were being laid off effective Nov. 22, said William Toohey, department spokesman.
They are what remains of a larger crew of about 15 who had removed or covered over lead-painted surfaces in about 75 private homes over the past four years as part of a state-funded pilot project to test and demonstrate abatement techniques.
That pilot project ended this year, but Toohey said City Builders had been offered a $328,000 contract to abate lead paint in houses owned by City Homes Inc., a subsidiary of the Enterprise Foundation.
City Homes, which rents 175 rowhouses, had received a $350,000 state grant to remove lead-paint hazards from its properties, and the state stipulated that the municipal abatement crew be used. The crew had been expected to perform 10 abatements this year, said Toohey.
But that deal fell through when City Homes refused Baltimore's demand for total immunity from liability if a child moving into the abated homes later became lead-poisoned and the family sued.
"If somebody comes in your house to do some work, why would you indemnify him? It's the other way around," said Barry Mankowitz, president of City Homes.
City Homes even offered to pay for insurance to cover the city abatement crew. But the city's lawyers advised Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke that the city stop doing such work unless it can be shielded from lawsuits.
The city paid $100,000 last year to settle a suit accusing the Health Department and current and former owners of a West Lanvale Street house -- one of them an attorney in the city's law department -- of failing to de-lead a home where two children were poisoned.
James Keck, former lead-poisoning prevention coordinator for the city, said the city was dismantling "an incredible learning laboratory" by laying off its abatement crew.
"That is the group that has taught us everything we know about lead abatement right now," said Keck, now a private consultant training abatement workers.
Keck contended that the city's action set a poor example for property owners, when "you expect the private sector to abide by the regulations, and yet you're scared to do the same because you're afraid you'll be sued."
But Mankowitz predicted that the city's move might actually help lower abatement costs by allowing more private firms to compete.
City Homes is de-leading its homes, using a private contractor. The group is participating in a federally funded study by Johns Hopkins looking at how to prevent lead poisoning with maintenance and repairs that will be less costly than completely removing all lead paint.
The city's landlords have complained that they are being driven out of business by abatement costs of $15,000 per house and by upward of 3,000 lead-poisoning lawsuits filed against them. They are seeking easing of abatement requirements and legal protection from liability.