Lead problem in house puts owners, tenants at odds Renters are displaced

landlords want payment

November 05, 1997|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

When the county declared a Hampstead farmhouse unliveable last summer, a family of three and their roommate were displaced and the landlords were left with costly repairs and legal controversy.

Nearly three months later, the house on Houcksville Road remains empty except for the family's possessions, which are contaminated with lead dust. The landlords continue to seek $760 monthly rent from the former tenants even though a Carroll County judge abated it for September and October.

The tenants, Tristram Corbin, 22, and Antion Williams-Brown, 23, insist that the landlords break the lease, return their $760 security deposit, relocate the family and reimburse them for damages and rent paid elsewhere.

Communication between the tenants and landlords is "hopelessly adversarial," relegated to letters and appearances in rent court, said Bob Allen, who owns the home along with Randy Richardson. The pair have leased out the house since purchasing it about eight years ago.

Problems began for the tenants shortly after they moved into the 80-year-old house with their 2 1/2 -year-old daughter and roommate Josh Thurman, 19, last spring. The couple notified the county of a failing septic system, an uncapped well, faulty wiring and peeling paint.

Greg Keller, county livability code inspector, found 36 violations and said the property should never have been rented.

But Ralph Green, chief of the county Bureau of Permits and Inspections, said: "The majority of those items were not serious enough to have the property vacated."

He amended his statement after the landlords tried to remove aging paint themselves -- work that neither was certified to do. Their faulty methods contaminated many of the tenants' possessions with lead dust.

"I gave them pamphlets on the proper removal of lead paint," said Sandra Corbin, Tristram Corbin's mother. "They were fully informed of the proper procedures and the risk factors. Yet, they endangered a child to save a dollar."

Within three months, the family abandoned the home and most of their possessions, fearing that lead paint would harm the toddler. They are now living with her parents in Lineboro.

"My house is broken," said Alexus Williams-Brown, the child.

Thurman moved back into his parents' home and is not pursuing legal action.

The Maryland Department of the Environment sent an inspector to the home on Aug. 22. The inspector found high levels of lead dust, particularly on the child's toys, and she cited the landlords for noncompliance of the lead paint law. They could receive a minimum $250 fine.

"The tenants were present in the home and the landlords were not following the appropriate safety factors," said Quentin Banks, MDE spokesman. "Our inspector issued a site complaint, ordering the landlords to comply with the lead abatement law."

Keller said, "Had they not taken the child out of the house, she could have been poisoned by the lead."

Shortly after the state inspection, Green wrote the landlords that "continuing to occupy this rental unit would constitute a substantial risk to occupants' health, safety and welfare. Displacement of tenants was necessary on Aug. 22.

"We also found that when you started illegal lead paint abatement, you contaminated some tenant property and you are responsible for rendering those items back to the condition that existed prior to the abatement," Green wrote.

The landlords have said they are repairing the house, paying more than $8,000 to Lead Busters, a state-certified company.

"We have every intention of putting the house into perfect shape," Richardson said.

Efforts to repair the home matter little to Corbin now. She wants no part of the building.

"Nothing could make me move back," she said.

David Meltzer, owner of Lead Busters, completed the abatement work, which included the replacement of all 22 windows. Last month, a certified inspector took several tests in the home that showed lead levels "lower than the legally allowed threshold," Meltzer said.

But the family's possessions are still contaminated and locked inside the home.

"Everything we own is in the house, including about half of our clothes," Tristram Corbin said.

A contractor could probably clean the things for about $900, but "it would probably be cheaper for the landlord to replace them," Meltzer said.

Green informed the landlords by letter that they "are required to provide the tenants with housing of comparable affordability within a reasonable distance of the vacated premises."

An incredulous Judge Alice P. Clark said last week that landlords cited for numerous violations had little room to demand rent and a $25 penalty.

"We have an empty house draining our pockets every month," Allen said.

Sandra Corbin has scheduled a meeting with the County Commissioners and is urging her daughter to hire a lawyer for Alexus.

"They knowingly exposed a child to contaminant that could cause permanent damage," Sandra Corbin said.

Pub Date: 11/05/97

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