Attacking the consequences of lead

December 02, 1993

After long hours and heated arguments, a gubernatorial commission has come up with recommendations that ought to enable the General Assembly to attack Maryland's lead-paint crisis.

Maryland is thought to have some 159,000 dwellings built before 1950, when lead-based paint was widely used. Most of them are in Baltimore City or in older areas of Baltimore County -- many of them in affluent neighborhoods like Guilford or Ruxton. But public health concerns have centered mainly on low-income housing that is often poorly maintained. In 1991, nearly 2,000 city children were found to have elevated levels of lead. But the health aspect is only one dimension of the crisis.

In recent years, after courts began awarding sizable settlements to victims of lead poisoning, insurance companies started canceling landlords' liability policies. This has led to a glut of older housing units on the market. They are often nearly impossible to sell at any price because lending institutions do not want to finance them. At the same time, landlords cannot obtain liability insurance. Continuing to rent them, in turn, exposes landlords to the specter of costly litigation and huge court awards in alleged lead poisoning cases.

This situation has contributed to the recent wholesale abandonment of rowhouses in some city neighborhoods. Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III says the cumulative impact of lead-related issues has produced "the biggest housing problem in the city of Baltimore."

"We've got to come up with a rational policy that recognizes the problems of all sides," he said. The gubernatiorial commission proposes to achieve this by shielding landlords from a torrent of lawsuits, while protecting young children who are vulnerable to the effects of lead.

In brief, the proposal would require that rental homes built before 1950 be inspected and repaired whenever tenants move out. They would then be certified by the state as "lead-safe," and insurance companies would be required to provide coverage for them. If a child in such a home still becomes infected, a landlord's personal liability would be limited to paying uncovered medical expenses.

Many landlords are against the plan, saying it would burden them with fix-up costs so high that a more widespread abandonment would be the result. Nevertheless, the 15-member commission overwhelmingly approved the recommendations to the governor and the General Assembly.

When the legislature convenes in Annapolis next month, it is likely to be in a parsimonious mood. But the effect of the lead-paint crisis now is so serious that urgent action to protect landlords -- and low-income housing -- is essential.

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