GEORGETOWN -- Charles and Cindy Barnett thought they had found a dream home last fall when they rented a three-bedroom rancher overlooking the Sassafras River in Cecil County.
But that dream became a nightmare as the couple struggled to keep their 19-month-old son, C. J., from being poisoned by lead paint flaking off the windows and walls. The Barnetts say that they were threatened with eviction for complaining and that their landlord promised repairs only after they sought court permission to withhold rent.
Now, at the urging of landlords, the General Assembly is considering repeal of the state law under which a small but growing number of tenants are paying rent into court-supervised escrow accounts to force lead-paint cleanups.
"Landlords can't survive without rent," said Ruth Ann Norton, director of the Coalition Against Childhood Lead Poisoning. "If they're responsible, they don't face escrow."
Toddlers are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can damage their developing nervous systems. Youngsters who pick up even minute amounts of lead dust or paint flakes on their hands can ingest enough of the toxic metal to cause learning disabilities.
More than 12,000 Maryland children younger than 6 had elevated lead levels in their blood when tested in 1995, and about 10 percent required medical treatment. The majority were in Baltimore, which has the second-highest lead-poisoning caseload of U.S. cities.
Only about a dozen tenants statewide have filed lead-paint escrow cases in district courts in the past year. But Norton says the law has a broader impact because it prompts voluntary repairs.
Landlords, many from Baltimore, contend that the 1976 escrow law is obsolete and can be unfairly used to threaten landlords' livelihoods. They have powerful backers -- House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany County Democrat, is sponsoring repeal legislation, as are Rep. Ronald A. Guns and Sen. Walter M. Baker, both Cecil County Democrats.
A lobbyist for a group of city landlords told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, chaired by Baker, during a hearing recently that the escrow law has been superseded by Maryland's Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, enacted in 1994. It requires lead-hazard reduction in all rental housing built before 1950.
"Landlords all over the state are complying with this law," said D. Robert Enten, lobbyist for the Property Owners Association of Greater Baltimore, a group of landlords renting low-income housing in the city. He said it is unfair to subject them to two laws with inconsistent requirements and overlapping penalties.
"They don't need another hammer over their heads, another bureaucracy or red tape," he said.
Tenants complaining about other housing defects would still have the right under existing law to put rent in escrow.
But children's health advocates say tenants need escrow to prevent lead poisoning because lead paint is thought to be present in about 75 percent of Maryland's housing stock, many landlords are not complying with the lead law, and state enforcement is lax.
The 1994 law also has a big loophole: It does not apply to the estimated 300,000 rental units built between 1950 and 1978, when the federal government banned the use of lead-based paint in dwellings.
The 1994 law, which took effect a year ago, requires owners of rental units built before 1950 -- about 159,000 statewide -- to fix hazards such as peeling paint before rental. It also requires repair of any lead-related defects within 30 days of being reported by tenants. Those who fail to comply stand to lose legal protection against tenant lawsuits, and they could be fined up to $250 per day by the state.
The rent escrow law, by comparison, authorizes judges to order removal of all lead-based paint, even if it is in good condition. Total removal can cost $15,000 or more in a typical rowhouse, while "risk reduction" measures called for in the 1994 law usually cost no more than a few thousand dollars.
Judges in escrow cases typically require lead-hazard reduction, not the more costly total abatement, according to the lead coalition's Norton. She said the escrow law may need to be amended but should not be repealed.
To their distress, the Barnetts learned from The Sun that their Cecil County home was not covered by the lead-poisoning prevention law because it was built in 1950, according to state real estate assessment records.
"I work hard," said Cindy Barnett. "My husband does, too. Why should we pay good money [for a house] that's a danger to my children?"
The Barnetts, whose rent is $700 a month, also have a 9-year-old daughter, Patricia.
Patricia has not been tested for lead in her blood and C. J.'s test result is pending, but the Barnetts have taken precautions to avoid the hazard. They have covered windows with plastic and made efforts to clean up potentially lead-laced dust.