Try digitalPLUS for 10 days for only $0.99

Editorial

News Opinion Editorial

Difficult justice for lead paint victims

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City has finally done the right thing in paying the remaining $6.8 million it owed in lead paint liability claims. Had the agency not worked so long to avoid its legal responsibility for the damages caused by past negligence, those suffering the consequences of lead poisoning from public housing might have been helped much sooner, and the agency might now be in a much stronger position to handle its potential future liability from other claims. Nonetheless, this action at least sets a precedent that the agency will not in the future seek to ignore its legal responsibilities.

The payments cover six cases dating from before 1996, when the housing authority came into compliance with new state lead abatement laws, and it represents the first time the agency has gotten approval from the federal department of Housing and Urban Development to use funds meant to subsidize low-income housing to cover lead paint judgments. Previous payments for another $5 million worth of judgments came from other sources. Still, the agency hasn't come close to closing the book on its potential liability for lead contamination. At latest count, the housing authority faces 316 active cases, and more could be filed.

Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano had previously cited the volume of the agency's potential liability as the reason it had not paid the judgments against it. By his reckoning, the housing authority faces $928 million in potential claims, just from the cases he already knows about, and he had previously cited the risk that the agency could be bankrupted as a reason for avoiding the precedent of making payments. Meanwhile, though, the agency was spending millions on outside attorneys to pursue often dubious strategies to avoid paying claims to lead paint victims.

Mr. Graziano said in an interview this week that his agency has spent the last few years seeking some kind of global solution to the current and potential lead paint claims against it — perhaps something like the funds for Sept. 11 victims or those affected by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico — but that those ideas proved not to be feasible.

Instead, the agency asked permission from HUD to use some of the $253 million in operating funds it will get this year from the federal government to cover the settlements, and it is now seeking permission to use more such funds in the future to set up a self-insurance pool to cover future claims.

The decision to do that was, admittedly, not an easy one for Mr. Graziano to make. The federal government is not providing the city with more money to handle these claims; in fact, its aid to the city is already some $30 million below what it should be because of sequestration and other budget cuts. The result is that payments to former tenants who were permanently injured as a result of substandard conditions in Baltimore's public housing will mean fewer opportunities for those who need help now. Mr. Graziano said his agency had been holding back on issuing all of its Section 8 vouchers this year in anticipation of the judgment, so no families will get kicked out of their housing as a result of these payments. But he said the $6.8 million would have covered about 700 vouchers for the year. If HUD goes along with the self-insurance plan, that, too, will mean fewer opportunities for families to get safe, affordable housing in Baltimore in the foreseeable future.

Nonetheless, making the payments was the right decision. Although there is no way to know for sure how much the agency might be on the hook for, it's a safe bet that it's much less than $928 million. The housing authority has been successful in the vast majority of the cases brought against it, and there is no reason to expect that it won't be in the future. We do not take lightly the fact that even a single loss in court can cost the agency millions — and by that, we really mean it will cost poor Baltimore residents who will be forced to live in sub-standard housing, if that. But when balancing the loss of opportunity for poor Baltimore residents in the future against a legal obligation to compensate lead paint victims, the scales must tip toward those who have suffered and will suffer permanent harm as a result of past negligence.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • Black churches burning

    Black churches burning

    In the week following the murderous rampage in which nine black parishioners were shot and killed at a church in Charleston, S.C., a series of mysterious fires at African-American churches across the South has revived the specter of racist violence against a core institution of the black community....

  • Reinventing Baltimore's schools

    Reinventing Baltimore's schools

    In 2000, Don Hutchinson, then president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, was part of a group of Baltimore's business leaders asked to review and critique the city school system's master plan, an annually updated document.

  • Clean air gets scrubbed

    Clean air gets scrubbed

    What is the value of being able to eat fish? What price should be put on birth defects that show up in a human fetus? What about the cost of people dying much earlier than they should have if not for an encounter with a toxic chemical?

  • Supreme Court sides with the people, not the politicians

    Supreme Court sides with the people, not the politicians

    Today the Supreme Court reinforced the principle that the voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around, in upholding an Arizona law that puts the task of drawing congressional district boundaries in the hands of an independent commission rather than the legislature. Maryland,...

  • Life lessons in 'Inside Out'

    Life lessons in 'Inside Out'

    My eight-year-old daughter, Anne, and I had a wonderful time viewing the new Disney/Pixar film "Inside Out." As many parents of a young children know by now, the film tells the story of Riley Andersen, a girl who moves from Minnesota to San Francisco and must cope with the transition to a new home,...

  • Republicans still beating a dead horse on Obamacare

    Republicans still beating a dead horse on Obamacare

    The Supreme Court's decisive 6-3 vote confirming the right of all Americans to federally supported health-care insurance should end the Republican Party's losing war on Obamacare — but it probably won't.

Comments
Loading

73°