Landlord jailed over lead paint is freed

Owner with long history of violations pledges to fix last properties

  • The gray brick rowhouse on Frederick Avenue is one of the properties owned by Cephus Murrell that is overdue for lead paint cleanup.
The gray brick rowhouse on Frederick Avenue is one of the properties… (Timothy Wheeler, Baltimore…)
December 21, 2010|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

A Baltimore landlord jailed last week for dragging his feet in fixing lead paint poisoning risks in his rental units was freed Tuesday after pledging to deal with the last two of his properties that had not been treated.

Baltimore Circuit Judge W. Michel Pierson ordered Cephus M. Murrell released from the detention center, where he'd been held since Thursday for contempt of court.

Jay Apperson, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, which had hauled the landlord into court, said Murrell had signed contracts to treat lead-paint poisoning risks in two of the three properties he still had not fixed at the time he was jailed. The tenants in a third property were relocated, the state spokesman said.

Murrell, who lives in Baltimore County, according to court records, is only the second Maryland landlord to be jailed for failing to comply with state law aimed at protecting young children from lead poisoning in older rental housing. Before this, a Dorchester County landlord had spent a weekend in jail for evading the law, according to state officials.

Murrell and his lawyer, Howard Schulman, did not respond to requests for comment. But Apperson said the landlord had arranged to have work done next week in one untreated rowhouse in the 2500 block of Frederick Ave. and to fix lead paint hazards next month in an apartment building in the 2800 block of Reisterstown Road.

"We weren't aware that the place had lead in it," Reginald Dowell said Tuesday at the Frederick Avenue house. Dowell, 42, said he and his wife live there with four children, two of them toddlers especially vulnerable to lead poisoning. Dowell said tests of the children several months ago showed no indication they'd ingested any lead.

Dowell said besides lead paint treatment, the home needs to be weatherized. Although the family is "in limbo" about whether they'll be forced to vacate the home next week while it's being worked on, Dowell defended his landlord, calling him "a fair man."

Under the 1994 law, any home built before 1950 that is rented to families with young children must be properly cleaned and have windows, doors and other painted surfaces covered or replaced to reduce the risk that children might ingest toxic lead dust or chips from old paint.

The law has been credited with drastically reducing the tally of lead-poisoned children, though last year harmful levels of lead were still detected in the blood of more than 500 youngsters statewide. Most of them are in Baltimore City, which has a vast stock of older housing.

Murrell has a history of violating the state's lead law, according to a chronology provided by the state. Regulators first cited him seven years ago after a tenant complained, leading to a series of escalating enforcement actions over the years as he repeatedly failed to bring his properties into compliance. Meanwhile, state officials learned that a child living in one of his units had lead poisoning, and at least one more child became poisoned while the case dragged on.

Murrell also has been cited repeatedly by the city for housing code violations at about 50 properties owned either by him or his consulting business, officials say.

"He's a regular customer," said Jason Hessler, assistant housing commissioner in charge of code enforcement. Hessler said last week that about 25 of Murrell's properties have unresolved violation notices for such things as a collapsing porch, defective doors, rodent infestation, wiring problems and nonfunctioning heat.

Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Coaltition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, said that despite major gains over the years, too many children are still being harmed. And she questioned whether authorities were moving quickly enough to bring repeat violators into compliance — or to justice.

Irresponsible landlords can evade scrutiny, she contended, by either certifying their own units as treated or covering for each other. Murrell had been certified by the state to perform lead risk treatments on his own properties and to inspect them, but the state yanked its approval after finding problems in units he'd claimed were fixed up.

Horacio Tablada, the environment department's director of land management, said the state had moved as expeditiously as it could, but Murrell had bought more time with appeals, excuses and promises to comply. Tablada said Murrell had told the judge earlier he didn't have the money to hire a contractor to finish fixing up the last of his properties, but managed to borrow the needed funds after being sent to jail.

"Some people, instead of putting the money into their properties and making them right, they fight a legal battle," Tablada said. "It probably would have been cheaper to comply."

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