Tough lead liabilities make renting risky

Section 8 changes: Despite higher rents, landlords cancel contracts with federal program for the poor.

September 11, 2000

TOUGH, NEW federal lead liability regulations -- which go into effect Friday -- may inadvertently hamstring Baltimore's efforts to replace decrepit public housing with subsidized private rental apartments.

The new rules have prompted many landlords to cancel their participation in the Section 8 program. And it's not just happening in Baltimore. "Quite a few of our members have sold properties and gotten out of the business. It's not just the HUD regulations; it's the lack of liability protection these days," says Bob Dennik, executive director of the Wisconsin Apartment Association.

Starting Friday, any landlord receiving federal subsidies for a pre-1978 building must alert tenants to the possible health hazards and use government-certified assessors to minimize risk of exposure to deteriorating paint. Whenever tests or remediation are conducted, affected residents must be moved to lead-free housing at the landlord's expense.

The federal government hopes the new rules will make it less vulnerable to lawsuits at a time when some advocacy groups and cities are preparing to sue paint manufacturers for allegedly hiding lead-paint risks for years. And, of course, it's a great idea to mandate safer living conditions.

But the presence of lead is so pervasive in Baltimore and other older cities that its detection and removal are proving far more costly than anyone anticipated.

Thus, the new federal rules may have serious unintended consequences for Baltimore's Section 8 program, which the city is relying on heavily after the demolition of public housing high-rises:

If the supply of safe low-income housing shrinks drastically, more tenants may be forced to double up in substandard units. More may even end up in homeless shelters.

The tough rules may also prompt more owners of marginal properties to desert them.

If these things happen, the city's serious abandoned housing problem will grow worse, not better. And the federal government's well-intended health measure will have backfired.

That's a scenario that produces no winners in the battle for safe, affordable housing.

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