A high price for a home Landlord cedes lead-filled house to former tenant.


Wanda Johnson finally owns her own home -- but it cost her the health of her children.

Ms. Johnson, a 35-year-old mother of nine, has been moved in and out of three city houses because of lead paint hazards to her children over the past decade. Three of them have lead poisoning.

When for exactly those reasons her family was ordered temporarily out of the most recent of those houses, on Hollins Street in West Baltimore in July 1990, they expected to return in about a month.

But that month -- a typical time span needed to fix up a lead-paint contaminated house -- became two years as the landlord dawdled on making repairs and the "system" ground away slowly.

Ms. Johnson and her family spent a year living at a halfway house-homeless shelter . They shared a residence with a relative for another year.

During that time she fought to gain possession of the modest house, but was dealt another blow when the building was vandalized and her belongings were stolen.

Wanda Johnson's story is bittersweet, but it ends with the achievement of a distant dream for most low-income Baltimore residents.

Having persevered through the red tape of her landlord's inattention and the city's court system, as well as the frustration of not providing better surroundings for her children for nearly two years, Ms. Johnson now owns the house.

The two-story, three-bedroom rowhouse at 2146 Hollins St. not only is lead-free, but has been renovated. She and her family moved back May 15.

"There's nothing like my own," Ms. Johnson said. "I love my house. I'm glad to be back."

Interior walls that used to be covered by chipped blue and yellow paint are now glossy white. The two bathrooms have been remodeled. Doors and plumbing have been replaced.

Although 70 percent of the city's rental housing units contain lead paint -- the leading environmental hazard for young children America -- about 78 percent of the landlords eventually cooperate and have the houses cleaned so tenants can move back in, says Michael Wojtowycz, program manager for the City Health Department's lead-paint poisoning prevention program.

Lead paint was used in roughly 200,000 city homes built before 1950. Many children are poisoned by putting their hands in their mouths after touching areas coated with lead dust. Lead poisoning can cause serious brain damage and ultimately, death.

Sometimes houses are boarded up because landlords cannot afford abatement costs, Mr. Wojtowycz said. Lead cleanup costs can range from $5,000 to $15,000.

Rarely do removed displaced residents get to own their own place.

Instead of paying for court-ordered lead abatement, however, Ms. Johnson's landlord tried to sell his property. With assistance from the University of Maryland law clinic, Ms. Johnson exercised her right to have the landlord first offer her, as tenant, a chance to buy the property.

After nearly a year of pressure, the landlord, who lives in West Virginia, offered to give her the house in exchange for settling the court case against him.

She accepted.

Then, Ms. Johnson's dilemma and economic status qualified her for a deferred loan to cover getting rid of the lead paint and renovating the house. The city's Residential Lead Paint Abatement Program lends about $800,000 each year to help residents and landlords with abatement costs.

The work on Ms. Johnson's house cost more than $30,000, said Vance T. Morris, director of the special loan program for the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development.

"I'm glad to be back in my own place," she said, watching her sons, Antonio Parker, 7, and Kevin Parker, 5, take turns riding a Big Wheel in the alley. "But now I have to start all over again."

The $275 rent is no longer due at the end of the month. Ms. Johnson now only has a small monthly mortgage payment, water bill and property tax with the money she receives from the Department of Social Services each month.

Still, she said, what she pays now beats paying with her children's health. "We now feel a lot safer," Ms. Johnson said.

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