With many Maryland landlords failing to respond to the state's expanded effort to curb childhood lead poisoning, officials are mass-mailing pointed reminders this summer to tens of thousands of property owners to register their rental units or risk being fined.
In mid-July, the state Department of the Environment began sending letters to 87,000 owners of properties built between 1950 and 1978 that should have registered with the state earlier this year if they are being rented and contain lead-based paint.
Young children who ingest even minute amounts of lead can suffer long-term learning and behavioral problems, and the lead-based paint that was once widely used in older housing is a main source of that health threat.
For nearly 20 years, the state has required rental units built before 1950 to be inspected and tested to certify they are safe. That was the year Baltimore City banned the sale of lead-based paint. Lawmakers expanded the regulatory effort beginning this year because lead paint for home interiors wasn't banned in the rest of the state until 1977.
Horacio Tablada, deputy environment secretary, said his agency has registered nearly 51,000 rental units that were built between 1950 and 1978, but state real estate assessment records indicate there could be up to five times that number statewide. He noted that this is the second round of mailings to those property owners since the registration requirement took effect Jan. 1.
"This is more like a warning letter, an advisory letter, telling you there's a Maryland law requiring you to register," Tablada said. If, after this notice, owners still don't register or provide an explanation for why their property should be exempt, Tablada said his agency would eventually cite them for violating the law.
"But for right now, we just give people the opportunity to come in," he said.
After registration, a landlord must have a unit tested before a new tenant can move in and must deal with any lead complaints filed by existing tenants.
Homes or residential units built before 1978 don't have to register if they aren't being rented, or if they don't have lead paint. Owners claiming a unit is lead-free must submit a certificate verifying that. MDE spokesman Jay Apperson said landlords have declared more than 34,000 rental units lead-free so far this year.
Ruth Ann Norton, president of the advocacy group Green and Healthy Homes Initiative, called the landlords' response "disappointing." But she praised the state for its outreach and said it was "critically important" for owners of all pre-1978 rental housing to comply with the law aimed at preventing children from being poisoned.
While the number of children diagnosed with lead poisoning has declined by more than 90 percent since the state began regulating older rental housing, Norton said, "We still have a long way to go in protecting children in all of Maryland's jurisdictions against lead poisoning."
Most of the state's lead poisoning cases have occurred in Baltimore City, which has some of the oldest and most rundown housing in the state, but Norton pointed out that youngsters in suburban and rural areas also are at risk if they live in older homes that contain lead paint.
Housing and real estate industry representatives said they believed most owners or managers of apartment buildings or complexes had registered their properties, but the word may be slow getting to "mom-and-pop" landlords with just one or a few units to rent.
"We've been pretty good with getting our membership and the ones doing property management information about what the requirements were," said William Castelli, senior vice president for government affairs with the Maryland Association of Realtors. "But if you're just Harry Homeowner, and you're renting out a property and not using a manager, it's possible you never knew about the requirement or thought it wouldn't apply to you."
Thomas Tompsett, government affairs director for the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, said landlords who were not members of his group "were calling in a panic" earlier in the year after getting the state's initial letter informing them they should be registered.
"It's an important thing," Tompsett said, adding that, "It's obviously had success."
The state also is mailing 10,500 violation notices to owners of pre-1950 rental homes who have not renewed their annual lead-paint registration in the past three years. The citations come following criticism earlier in the year by legislative auditors that the Department of the Environment has not kept tabs on why rental units previously identified as having lead paint in them were no longer registered.
The penalty for failing to register is $90, three times the annual filing fee. Tablada said his agency had previously sent out warning letters to owners of the units with lapsed registrations.
"We never heard anything back from them," he added, "so we're going to get a lot of phone calls and a lot of people will come clean — or tell us they sold the property."
While the number of seriously poisoned children has declined dramatically since the early 1990s, the number considered at risk of harm has grown again in recent years. In 2011, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared research shows there is no safe exposure level and reduced its threshold for action to 5 micrograms per deciliter, half of what it had been for two decades before that. There were 2,622 Maryland children age 6 or younger who tested with elevated levels of lead in their blood in 2013, the most recent year for which figures are available.
Earlier this week, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals signaled its concern for harm done to children by relatively low-level lead exposures just above the new CDC threshold. The state's second-highest court overturned a Baltimore Circuit Court judge's dismissal of a lawsuit in which medical experts testified the plaintiff, a young woman, lost up to 4 IQ points as a result of childhood exposure to lead paint in a rented Baltimore city home.
The state's housing secretary, Kenneth C. Holt, stirred a furor last week by suggesting that the state's lead poisoning laws could motivate a mother to deliberately poison her child to obtain free housing. Children's and health advocates denounced his remarks as insensitive and inaccurate, and he quickly apologized. A group of 30 Democratic lawmakers called for Holt's removal, but Gov. Larry Hogan stuck by his secretary, expressing his disappointment over what the governor's spokesman called Holt's "unfortunate and inappropriate statement."
A lobbyist with the multi-housing group said that landlord representatives have held "preliminary conversations" with state officials about lead paint liability issues. But Hogan administration officials have said in reaction to the uproar over Holt's comment that they won't do anything to jeopardize the safety of children.