Lead paint proposal goes to Assembly Landlords poised to fight measure


A plan to reduce lead poisoning and preserve low-income rental housing in Maryland began its journey to the General BTC Assembly yesterday, where landlords will try to ambush the measure.

The proposal, approved by the governor's Lead Paint Poisoning Commission, seeks to shield landlords from a torrent of lawsuits while stemming an epidemic of low-level lead poisoning among young children, mostly in the older, dilapidated row homes of Baltimore's poor neighborhoods.

But a spokesman for many of the city's largest landlords branded the plan "unworkable" yesterday and has vowed to "fight like hell" to kill it when legislators tackle the issue in January.

The 112-page plan represents a "compromise" that was hammered out after weeks of "brutal" debate by the 15-member panel, which includes health advocates, housing specialists and landlords, said Donald Gifford, commission chairman and dean of the University of Maryland law school.

Nearly 3,000 children in Maryland tested positive last year for lead poisoning, more than four-fifths of them in Baltimore, according to the state Department of the Environment.

Landlords now say they are being driven out of business by the costs of lead paint removal and by hundreds of lead-poisoning lawsuits filed by present and former tenants. The insurance industry has refused to continue insuring rental homes against such lawsuits.

The proposal would require that 159,000 rental homes built before 1950 be inspected and repaired whenever tenants move out. Any chipping, flaking or peeling paint would have to be removed and repainted. Doors, floors and windows also would have to be treated to reduce friction that would produce lead paint dust.

Once inspected, fixed-up homes would be certified by the state as "lead-safe," and insurance companies would be required to insure the properties. If a child in a "lead-safe" home still becomes poisoned, a landlord would only have to pay uncovered medical expenses. But the city's landlords reject the plan, contending that fix-up costs estimated to be upward of $10 million a year overall will force them to raise rents by $30 to $50 a month or abandon even more buildings.

"We are going to fight like hell to kill this thing, and we reject it," Stewart Levitas, representing the Property Owners Association, warned at a meeting earlier this month.

"I hope we are doing the right thing," Nick Farr, a commission member and executive director of the National Center for Lead-Safe Housing in Columbia, replied. "Unless we do something like this, there will not be decent housing available to families in cities."

The plan's costs -- and who should pay them -- also pose a major political hurdle. The commission estimates that $8 million to $10 million a year would be needed to oversee the property upgrades and to find and track poisoned children. And the panel still is weighing a proposal to help property owners pay for replacing lead-painted windows, which could add millions more.

After another emotional debate, the commission yesterday rejected proposals to tax gasoline and paint, two historic sources of lead. It also balked at tapping the interest earned by tenants' security deposits, estimated to total $9 million a year.

Instead, the panel narrowly approved a recommendation that the state's general tax funds be used to finance the work, despite a warning from Environment Secretary David A. C. Carroll that the Schaefer administration already is wrestling with a $140 million deficit in health insurance for state employees.

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