Simple fix: conscientious landlords

January 20, 2000|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

In the heart of the east-side "hot zone" lies the 1200 block of N. Montford. Nine children who called it home have been poisoned by lead -- including Jevonte Sanders, 4.

He breathed the invisible lead dust generated by the opening and closing of old windows in his mother's rented rowhouse. He crawled in it. The stuff stuck to his clothes and bedding. In 1996, he was diagnosed.

"When the doctors first told me he had the lead, they said he could be brain damaged," recalls his mother, Delba Jones, 34. "Somebody tells you your baby could be handicapped for life, it's real scary."

But Jones was luckier than most mothers of lead-poisoned kids. Doctors detected it early. The Health Department intervened immediately. And her landlord was Mark Greggs.

Greggs relocated the family within days, tore out and replaced the windows and doors, and coated the interior in a thick, gleaming skin of new lead-free paint. One month later, Jones moved back in with her three boys, "so happy, surprised, I couldn't believe my eyes."

It was standard practice for Greggs, 46, and his business partner, Robert Paul. Even with 35 units between them, the two men qualified as a small operation by the standards of Baltimore, where landlords often own hundreds of houses.

Three months after his partner's death from a liver condition, Paul now manages the entire portfolio. And he says Greggs' swift action should stand as an example to others -- and as a simple prescription to stop the poisoning of Baltimore's children.

Because the real estate market in poorer neighborhoods is so depressed, even conscientious landlords cannot afford to make basic repairs because they often cost more than their property is worth. A modest grant program, Paul says, is needed to pay for the repair or replacement of windows and doors.

"We know that's the biggest danger," Paul says. "And it couldn't cost more than $1,500 a house to stop it. How hard is that to understand? We could stop the lead poisoning of thousands of kids for 1,500 bucks a house -- a few million dollars.

"It's a drop in the bucket compared to what this must be costing the taxpayers just to take care of these kids. Hello? Legislature? Governor? Is anybody out there?"

A relatively small group of large-scale landlords poison scores of children every year and control the bulk of houses in the city's worst enclaves. By assigning inspectors and prosecutors to target repeat offenders, poisonings could be quickly reduced.

"I've made a comfortable living and I only own 25 houses," Paul says. "But it's hard work to do it right. And these greedy bastards who own hundreds of houses and run them into ground are ruining my investment because I own buildings on the same blocks.

"I resent the hell out of it when people lump us all together as slumlords. Some of these guys are criminals. They should be prosecuted. But they're not."

Three city neighborhoods produce more than half the lead poisoning cases in Maryland. But landlords avoid making repairs by boarding up their dangerous houses, then marketing them to unsophisticated buyers. To stop the "killer blocks" from being recycled, Paul says, the city should demolish them.

"God knows how much anguish we could save ourselves," Paul says.

As for Jones, she pays her late-landlord a compliment rarely heard in East Baltimore.

"My landlord?" she says. "I love my landlord."

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