Sign-ups under lead-paint law lag Joan Pratt case shows flaws in enforcement

September 05, 1996|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Eric Siegel contributed to this article.

Articles in the Sept. 4 and 5 editions reported incorrectly the penalty for failing to register rental properties built before 1950 under Maryland's lead poisoning prevention. The penalty is $10 per day per unit.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Thousands of people who own older rental homes in Maryland may have failed to register and fix up their properties under the state's new lead-poisoning prevention law, just as City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt did, state officials said yesterday.

About 26,000 property owners have registered apartments or homes built before 1978 with the Maryland Department of the Environment, as required by the law.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The law, which took effect in February, provides landlords limited protection from tenant lawsuits if they register their properties and make repairs aimed at reducing lead-paint hazards.

The number of rental units registered so far -- about 180,000 -- falls 50,000 short of the number state officials say they estimated would come in.

However, the state agency has been having so much difficulty compiling the registration list that regulators cannot say precisely how many properties have been filed and how many older rental units that should be registered are not.

"We're trying to match up who's registered and who's not," said Alvin L. Bowles, who oversees the environmental agency's lead-poisoning program.

"We're getting there," he said, but added, "We've still got some more to go a long way."

The situation came to light this week when children's advocates reported that Pratt and two business partners failed to register and fix up a Northwest Baltimore house they rent out.

A 3-year-old girl whose family moved into the second-floor apartment in April has been poisoned by lead.

Lawyers for low-income tenants and children's advocates contend that the Pratt case shows how slow the state has been to carry out the lead-poisoning law, which got off to a bumpy start because of conflict between landlords and children's advocates over its implementation.

"If you want a law to have an impact, you have to have enforcement," said Ruth Ann Norton, director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning.

She called on the state to step up its efforts to gain compliance from landlords and to inform tenants of their rights under the law.

Norton said that when her staff has asked the state Environment Department whether tenants' homes are registered, the answer has been no in four of five cases.

The coalition publicized Pratt's ownership of the property at 2909 Garrison Blvd., where Ariel McClain was living when blood tests revealed the girl had lead poisoning.

An inspection by Kennedy Krieger Institute, the clinic treating the child, detected high levels of lead dust in the window of the second-floor apartment occupied by the McClain family.

"The house should have been registered. We should have been in compliance, absolutely," Pratt said yesterday.

The first-term comptroller said she and her partners filed papers Tuesday to register the Garrison Boulevard house and another rental home owned by the partnership in the 200 block of Roslyn Ave.

She called the failure to do so until now an oversight.

Though the law calls for fining unregistered property owners up to $900 a year per unit, the state has yet to penalize anyone for failing to comply.

Though the law was enacted in 1994, the effort to reduce lead-poisoning risks in older rental housing officially began only six months ago. State regulations took effect Feb. 24.

"This has been a complicated process, and you can't start on day one just going out and beating up on people," Bowles said.

He would not comment on the Pratt case, but Bowles said his agency plans this fall to step up its efforts to get older properties registered.

Rental units built before 1950 must be registered, while those built between 1950 and 1978 are optional.

Bowles said his staff of five inspectors would focus first on about 20 unregistered older rental properties where children have elevated lead levels in their bloodstream.

Young children who ingest even tiny amounts of lead dust, from deteriorating lead-based paint or other sources, can suffer brain damage leading to learning and behavioral problems years later.

An attorney representing Baltimore's larger landlords, meanwhile, said he believed that they had registered their properties and were complying with the law.

"The people who generally are not complying are people who own one or two properties, who either weren't informed about the law or think it didn't apply to them," said D. Robert Enten, lobbyist for the Property Owners Association of Greater Baltimore.

Pub Date: 9/05/96

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