Bill stirs debate on lead

City Council measure would reverse court ruling

Make it harder for tenants to sue

Critics fear health risks

backers see landlord flight

August 02, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

A City Council bill that looks like simple tinkering with Baltimore's building code has advocates for children and local landlords warning of dire consequences, with critics saying more kids will be poisoned by lead if it passes, and backers predicting an exodus of property owners if it doesn't.

Like a similar measure that died in the state legislature last year, the council bill makes no mention of lead.

But there is a direct link to lead - one that, after belatedly coming to light, seems likely to kill the bill.

The city and state bills were prompted by a November ruling by the state's highest court that makes it easier for tenants to sue over lead paint and other housing code violations.

Introduced by Council President Sheila Dixon on behalf of the city's Department of Housing and Community Development, the bill seeks to undo the effect of the Court of Appeals decision. The ruling found that landlords could be sued for health problems and other ill effects of defective housing even if tenants had not notified owners and given them a chance to repair the property.

Property owners, who worked with the housing department to develop the bill, say it is meant to defend a centuries-old principle of common law, and should not be clouded by the emotional topic of lead-poisoned children.

"There's not a lead paint bill before the City Council," said Samuel Polakoff, president of the Property Owners Association of Greater Baltimore. "It's aiming to correct a misinterpretation by the courts, which changed the interpretation of the housing code and changed an underlying principle that has been in effect since the boats came over from Europe."

Without the change, Polakoff said, landlords will be unduly vulnerable to lawsuits, unable to get insurance and unwilling to keep doing business in the city.

"If those that are opposed to this are successful in defeating it, they can congratulate themselves for contributing to another mass exodus from the city of investment property owners," he said.

Criticisms outlined

But advocates for lead-poisoned children say the bill would set back their cause and absolve landlords of their responsibility to make sure their rental units are free of lead hazards and other health threats.

"We feel this would be further encouragement for owners to do nothing until after a child has been poisoned," said Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning. "This is a bill that clearly supports the interests of property owners but abandons the interests of children. And so I'm not sure why the city has chosen to sponsor this bill."

The housing department appeared to be backing away from the bill last week, after Norton and Baltimore's Health Department raised questions about it.

Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano said he would discuss the matter this week with health officials and will not support it "until all these questions are answered."

Some city officials, including Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the city's health commissioner, and Councilman Robert W. Curran, said the measure caught them off guard.

Invisible threats

Beilenson said he is concerned about the bill because in the vast majority of lead-poisoning cases, the problem is not something a tenant can see, like peeling paint, but invisible lead dust created when painted windows and doors are opened and closed.

Young children who crawl on the floor ingest the dust when they put their hands and toys in their mouths, sometimes resulting in severe and irreversible brain damage.

"What's the tenant going to say, `I've been opening and closing the windows?'" Beilenson said.

But landlords say they cannot be expected to know the condition of their units after they have been turned over to the tenant.

"You don't want to be knocking on the door every day to make sure there's not a ding in the wall that could create lead dust," said Carolyn Blanchard Cook, deputy executive vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors."

A single sentence

Titled "Building, Fire and Related Codes - Landlord's Tort Liability," the bill proposes the addition of a single sentence to the code. It states: "This code is not intended to alter the common law principle of tort liability that a landlord may be found liable for personal injury to a tenant caused by a defective condition on the leased premises only if the landlord had knowledge or reason to know of the condition and a reasonable opportunity to correct it."

Saul E. Kerpelman, a Baltimore lawyer who represents tenants in lead paint cases, said the bill was intentionally deceptive. He called it the "Slum Landlord Relief Act" in a letter to Curran.

Critics called the measure submitted to the legislature early this year a "snake" - legislation whose intent is not apparent on its face.

"This is the landlords' second try in sneaking a bill through," Kerpelman said.

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