Tenants sue over rules on lead paint Class-action suit claims provisions favor landlords

Debate stems from '94 law

Injunction would bar regulations from taking effect Feb. 24

January 03, 1996|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Lawyers for three Baltimore tenants filed a class-action suit yesterday challenging new state lead-paint regulations, contending that loopholes in the rules will allow thousands of Maryland children to be poisoned.

The suit, filed yesterday in Baltimore Circuit Court, seeks an injunction barring the Maryland Department of the Environment from enforcing key provisions in the lead-paint removal and cleanup regulations.

The rules, adopted in November, are scheduled to take effect Feb. 24. They would carry out a pioneering 1994 state law intended to prevent childhood lead poisoning while preserving the state's dwindling affordable housing. The law has remained in limbo for the past 15 months because of disputes between landlords and children's advocates over how to carry it out.

"The basic idea behind the law was that children would get safe places to live and landlords would get immunity from lawsuits in the event that any children ended up poisoned somehow," said Joseph B. Espo, a lawyer for the tenants.

Mr. Espo said that the way the rules now stand, "landlords are getting their immunity and children aren't getting a safe place to live."

Jane T. Nishida, secretary of the environment, said she had not seen the suit and would not comment on it.

D. Robert Enten, a lawyer representing the Property Owners Association of Greater Baltimore, also said he could not comment on the litigation since he had not seen it. But he said the law and the regulations seek to "strike a balance between the business community and the maintenance of affordable housing and practicality" and trying to reduce lead poisoning.

Swallowing even tiny amounts of lead dust can slow the development of a child younger than 6 years old, and can cause learning disabilities and behavior problems. Experts estimate that 95 percent of the state's 159,000 rental housing units built before 1950 contain lead-based paint.

The landlords want protection from a growing number of lawsuits filed by former tenants who claim their children have been poisoned by lead. The landlords say the litigation threatens to drive them out of business.

The law requires owners of pre-1950 rental housing to reduce lead-poisoning risks in their properties, primarily by removing and repainting surfaces that have chipping, flaking and peeling paint. In return, the landlords would be shielded from lawsuits if any children living in their units become poisoned.

The rules generally require landlords to follow safety precautions when scraping or treating lead-painted surfaces. Tenants might have to vacate the apartment, for instance, and special vacuums and detergents would have to be used to clean up any lead dust generated.

At issue are provisions that would exempt landlords from having to follow some or all of those safety precautions when performing plumbing or electrical work or when doing any repairs that disturb no more than 25 square feet of paint in any room.

"In practice, it means you can scrape all the windows and doors in every room without a cleanup and do a pretty good job of poisoning kids," said Andrew D. Freeman, another of the tenants' lawyers. He contended that lead-paint treatment guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development only exempted disturbances of no more than 2 square feet.

The lawsuit also challenges the environment department's decision not to test lead-dust levels after work has been done in a rented home.

Mr. Enten, the Baltimore landlords' lawyer, said the regulations challenged by the lawsuit follow the intent of the General Assembly. He also pointed out that such repair work is totally unregulated.

"It's time for everybody to accept that this statute is what it is and let's get about the business of carrying it out," he said.

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