Bill to limit tenant rights in lead cases clears Senate Proposal aims to restrict option of withholding rent

March 15, 1997|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Ivan Penn contributed to this article.

The Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill yesterday that would restrict tenant rights to withhold rent when lead-paint hazards endanger children's health.

About 1,200 Maryland children younger than age 6 suffered lead poisoning in 1995, risking learning and other problems after ingesting lead-paint flakes or dust in older housing.

The bill, sought by landlords in Baltimore and the rest of the state, passed 42 to 1. A similar bill is pending in the House.

The measure originally would have repealed a 1976 law under which a tenant could withhold rent and pay it to a District Court until the landlord removed lead paint.

Landlords sought repeal, contending the escrow law was in conflict with a more recent state law aimed at reducing childhood lead poisoning. Enacted in 1994, that law required owners of 150,000 rental properties built before 1950 to fix peeling and flaking lead paint.

Under the escrow law, a tenant can withhold rent until all lead paint is removed from the dwelling, at a cost of thousands of dollars more than the fix-up required under the lead poisoning law.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, chaired by Cecil County Democrat Walter M. Baker, amended the bill so that escrow would be permitted with limitations.

One is that landlords would have to meet the less costly clean-up standards in the lead poisoning law. Another is that tenants would lose their right to withhold rent if they lived in one of more than 300,000 units statewide built in 1950 or later. Lead-based paint was often applied in housing until a federal ban in 1977.

Baker said the escrow law was rarely used but was onerous to landlords.

"It costs so much more to abate lead paint than to seal it," he said.

If all landlords had to remove lead paint, he said, low-income tenants could not afford to rent their units.

"This is a dangerous precedent and very bad policy," said Ruth Ann Norton of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning.

She and other children's health advocates complained that the bill would deprive many tenants of an important legal tool for protecting their families' health.

Pub Date: 3/15/97

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