Blind grandmother denied new house

February 09, 1994|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun Staff Writer

Lynnette Wragg thought she had finally found a way out of her dilapidated rowhouse, a crumbling structure on the city's east side, the place where her 2-year-old grandson had been contaminated by lead paint.

Through a nonprofit program called City Homes, she applied for a lead-abated house. As a low-income mother with a good history of paying her rent, she appeared to be qualified. But Ms. Wragg, on the eve of getting her new house, didn't meet the third test. Her house, where she lives with five children and her grandson, wasn't clean enough, an inspector decreed.

Ms. Wragg, 32, was puzzled. She thought she kept a clean house. Then again, she can't swear to it.

Ms. Wragg is blind.

"But I used to be able to see, so I remember how to do things," she said. "I can still clean. And I cook."

Ms. Wragg's dilemma places her in a gray area where no single entity can be held accountable -- and in a subjective realm where terms are difficult to define.

What is clean?

How does anyone determine where her housekeeping begins, and the rowhouse's deterioration ends?

City Homes President and Director Barry Mankowitz said he is sympathetic to Ms. Wragg's plight, but can't provide maid services to tenants, nor a social worker to teach them how to care for a home.

"I'm not looking for someone spick-and-span," he said. "She's halfway there. She pays her bills. But I can't provide her with social services."

The Department of Social Services does provide cleaning help, but only to its most desperate clients, whose inability to care for their homes could lead to more costly intervention -- institutions for adults, or foster care for children threatened by neglect.

Even Ms. Wragg's landlord can't be held accountable. By her own admission, she has never told him about the lead paint problem. "I'm scared he'll put me out," she said.

But if she stays, 2-year-old Joseph Johnson will continue to be exposed to the lead paint, a problem that first surfaced in a regular check-up. She said the doctor has urged her to find a new place for them. She also is worried about her youngest son, 4-year-old Edward.

On a visit to her home last week, a Sun reporter and photographer found a run-down rowhouse with shabby furniture. But the bathtub, beneath a crumbling ceiling, was sparkling white.

The floor in front of the kitchen sink was spongy and creaked alarmingly underfoot, but the sink was clean and dishes were stacked neatly in a drying rack on the drainboard.

Mr. Mankowitz described a markedly different place from his visit, a week earlier: "Her house keeping was an absolute disaster. Did you see that curtain between the living room and the dining room? It hadn't been washed in 10 years. Same with the sheets. They were black . . . [but] Mrs. Wragg believes her house is clean. I don't know what to tell you."

Even in a lead-abated house, he said, the children would be susceptible to lead dust tracked in from outdoors if it is not kept clean. It defeats the purpose of the program to rent to people who can't maintain the houses, he said.

Cynthia Young, a friend of Ms. Wragg's, tried to intercede on her behalf, but said Mr. Mankowitz appeared to be obsessed with the fact that Ms. Wragg is blind.

"He was saying cleanliness, but he kept hollering, 'She's blind! She's blind!' " recalled Ms. Young, who visited the home after the inspection and saw no problems. "He said her pajamas weren't white, that kind of stuff."

Mr. Mankowitz said City Homes has no problem renting to people with disabilities and has several tenants who are handicapped. It is against the law to discriminate against people with handicaps.

Ms. Wragg can apply again and try to meet the standards, he said.

Meanwhile, Ms. Wragg will continue living in the two-bedroom house in the 1700 block of N. Port St., where she pays $280 a month. The heat is out, and she's using the oven to keep it warm. The place she almost had, a four-bedroom rowhouse across from an elementary school in the 1700 block of E. Chase St., would have cost $300.

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