Tenant complains about lead paint, is told to move


Next month, Thomasena Hester, 73, and her three young grandsons could join Baltimore's homeless population.

"I think of them coming and putting my things on the street," she says. "I don't know where we would go."

After Hester's rented home at 2139 W. Lexington St. was cited for lead-paint violations by the City Health Department in March, her landlord gave her 60 days to move.

Because Hester couldn't find a new place, the landlord, Nock Realty, agreed this week to give her another 30 days before initiating eviction proceedings.

Yesterday, Hester still hadn't found a new home.

Bernard Williams Jr., one of her three grandsons, steered a toy truck around the sun-drenched back yard of the two-story rowhouse. As the 3-year-old played, paint chips fell from the brick rear wall and formed little green specks on the ground.

The level of lead in Bernard's blood was nearly double the federal standard for lead poisoning when he was first tested last year, medical records show. Another of Hester's grandsons, Eric Evans, 8, is to be tested this summer at the Kennedy Institute lead clinic.

For now, Hester, the boys -- ages 3, 8 and 11 -- and her 18-year old granddaughter must stay in the run-down rowhouse, where the kitchen roof leaks and peeling wallpaper exposes cracked and flaking walls.

Whenever potential landlords learn about Bernard's lead poisoning, Hester says, she is told that their properties may not be lead-free. She says she refuses to leave her home and move into a worse place.

"Thomasena Hester is like a woman standing on 14th-floor window ledge of a burning building with a baby in her arms," said lawyer Peter D. Ward, who is representing Hester. "Does she jump or does she wait for the firemen to get there?"

On Monday, Ward went to Baltimore Circuit Court to try to stop Hester's eviction until Nock finds her a safe place to live. Instead, a lawyer for Nock and Ward agreed not to take any formal court action for another month.

Ward maintains that Nock's attempt to evict Hester is illegal because it was retaliatory. The notice to vacate came eight days after the City Health Department cited Nock with a lead-paint violation March 11.

Lawyers with the Legal Aid Bureau said in court papers that Nock is legally responsible for relocating Hester. The bureau's lawyers said Paul Nochumowitz, a Nock representative, told them Nock's only obligation was to "tell them to get out," the records show.

"I think it would be in her best interest to move out as fast as she can," Nochumowitz said in a telephone interview.

When lead paint is found in a home, the Health Department cites the owner and orders the paint removed or covered over within 30 days. The deadline is rarely met. The lead-abatement process is costly, and city officials rarely prosecute property owners for failing to remove the lead.

The Legal Aid lawyers said Nochumowitz told them he had no plans to "de-lead" the Lexington Street house, court records show. Instead, Nock planned to evict Hester and her grandchildren, board up the house and let it sit vacant.

Hester says she has paid more than $100 in fees to real estate agents who then turn her down when they learn of Bernard's lead poisoning. She says is applying for public housing but is not sure whether she will have an apartment by next month.

Hester lives on a fixed income. Her rent now is $330 a month. She gets $336 a month in Social Security payments, $406 monthly from city social services to care for her grandchildren and $264 in food stamps.

Last year, 1,445 Maryland children were identified with lead poisoning -- more than double the number of the previous year, state officials reported. Baltimore was home to 1,148 of them.

Hester moved to 2139 Lexington in 1987, when Bernard was an infant. She remembers him crawling around the floors of the house.

The biggest source of lead exposure for young children is dust they swallow from deteriorating lead-based paint in their homes. Exposure can cause hyperactivity, mental retardation, and even death in high enough doses.

"His speech is not clear," Hester says of Bernard. "He's very busy. They tell me he will have other after-effects. I know something is still wrong with him."

Hester spends her time cleaning up the dust around the house and thinking about what will happen next month.

"Sometimes I get bitter and ask why is this happening to me," she says. "But then I say a prayer and keep going. I know there are some people out there with a heart. I ain't fighting this alone."

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