A compromise proposal aimed at reducing widespread lead-paint poisoning hazards in Maryland's rental housing has drawn fire from virtually all sides, and the wounds may be fatal.
The plan, drafted by the staff of the governor's Lead Paint Poisoning Commission as a basis for legislation, took a beating Friday from two dozen health activists, landlords, lawyers, environmentalists and housing experts.
"I've heard person after person come up here and tell us this is the most worthless document they've read," said William Clark, a commission member, during the first public hearing on the plan at the University of Maryland Law School downtown.
The 15-member commission itself was criticized for not including any low-income tenants in its deliberations over the past 10 months, even though poor and minority children are especially at risk of lead poisoning because so many live in substandard housing.
"You've listened to doctors, lawyers, lead paint specialists, property owners," said Sherrilyn Ifill, an assistant UM law professor. But she noted that tenants, particularly "poor and low-income African Americans in the city of Baltimore," were not on the commission and had not been sought out for their reaction.
When the two-hour hearing was over, Donald Gifford, the panel's chairman and dean of the law school, said that "serious issues have been raised," and wondered if there was enough time to resolve them before the General Assembly meets in January. The commission will meet Friday to consider revisions to the plan.
Originally asked to study a "no-fault" system for compensating poisoned children by taxing paint, the commission rejected that as politically unworkable. Instead, the panel's staff devised a proposal to shield landlords from legal action if they made modest improvements to their rental properties, rather than removing all lead-based paint. Landlords say they are being driven out of business by the high costs of cleanup, and by a rising tide of poisoning lawsuits.
Lead-based paint, widely used in housing until 1950, is considered the leading source of the toxic metal that poisons more than 2,000 Maryland children a year, most of them in Baltimore. Toddlers and youngsters who ingest even tiny amounts of dust and flakes from deteriorating paint can suffer reduced intelligence, learning disabilities and behavioral and growth problems.
Advocates for children and health activists said Friday that the commission's plan seemed aimed more at protecting landlords from liability than at preventing lead poisoning. Several critics said that any new legislation should require homes to be tested for lead paint dust.
Landlords, meanwhile, complained that the proposal still demanded too much of them.
Some of the most telling criticism came from a lead-paint removal expert, who said there was no scientific evidence that the required housing repairs would reduce lead poisoning. "We're marching down a road that's not well lit," said Dr. Mark Farfel, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.
Dr. Farfel is conducting a federally funded test in 105 Baltimore homes of relatively low-cost methods of reducing lead-paint hazards. But he said it is too early to know what works, and he warned that more children and housing maintenance workers could be poisoned by misguided repair requirements.
Daniel P. Henson III, Baltimore city's housing commissioner, urged the panel not to give up. He said that more and more homes in the city are being boarded up because of problems with lead paint. And he warned that the blight of abandoned older housing could spread to the suburbs.
EFFECT ON LANDLORDS, TENANTS, TAXPAYERS
Plan being considered by the governor's Lead Paint Poisoning Commission aims to reduce hazards to children in Maryland's 159,000 rental housing units built before 1950. Baltimore City has nearly 70,000 of the private homes and apartments. The plan's main provisions:
* Eases cost burden -- Instead of removing the lead, they only have to reduce the hazard.
* Shields them from legal action and loss of insurance, provided dwellings are certified as "lead-safe."
* To get certification, they must remove any deteriorating paint, make other repairs intended to reduce lead dust and clean interiors with special equipment.
* They would pay an estimated $100 million statewide for such work during the coming decade.
* They must notify tenants of lead hazards and ways to prevent poisoning, respond within 30 days to complaints of deteriorating paint and respond within 21 days to notice of a poisoning.
* They must notify landlords when young children or pregnant women are in residence.
* They must alert landlords when paint is deteriorating and when a child has been poisoned.
* They can sue only if a landlord fails to make required repairs, doesn't respond to a poisoning hazard or case, won't pay for medical treatment or refuses to relocate a family to lead-safe housing.
* State pays for inspecting rental properties, overseeing repairs and certifying dwellings as lead-safe. Overall cost in public funds: $6 million to $8 million a year.