Get the Lead Out
Baltimore Landlords Allegedly Evict Tenants for Allowing Lead-Poisoning Tests in Rental Properties
In October 2000, when the Association for Community Reform Now (ACORN)'s local office started training its members to test for lead hazards in houses in Baltimore City, the community organization revealed a weakness in the law that is supposed to reduce the risk of lead poisoning in children: The state's 1994 Reduction of Lead Risk in Housing Law does not require landlords of rental properties to test for lead in an apartment until after a child has already been poisoned.
With a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Baltimore-based Abell Foundation, ACORN and the University of Maryland School of Medicine teamed up to randomly test houses in the city before a poisoning happened. The pre-emptive approach to curbing lead poisonings is similar to programs in other cities across the country, many of which have more stringent lead laws than Baltimore. ACORN tested 157 houses citywide beginning in August 2001 and discovered lead hazards in 83 of them. Nearly half of the homes that tested positive for hazardous levels of lead even had certificates from the Maryland Department of the Environment declaring them lead-free.
ACORN didn't anticipate the rampant lack of enforcement of the federal lead regulations, which allow for 40 micrograms of lead to exist in floors, 250 micrograms in windowsills, and 400 micrograms in window wells--it is considered dangerous for children to have as little as 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood in their bloodstreams. ACORN and UM's lead-testing program discovered that many of the houses tested far exceeded the federal limits and forced a number of landlords to get rid of the lead in their rental properties. But some landlords, displeased that ACORN sends notices of defect--a simple form noting problems in an apartment--to the Maryland Department of the Environment whenever elevated levels of lead are detected, have begun evicting tenants who allowed their apartments to be tested.
"We use environmental sampling as a leverage tool to put the city and state on notice that these properties are not being attended to," says Deborah Taylor, program director for ACORN's environmental justice project. "We have uncovered how lax the lead laws are. . . . [But] retaliatory evictions are definitely an issue--or the fear of them. A lot of tenants have turned down lead testing in the area because of the fear of retaliatory evictions. [It] is very prevalent."
Tye Lane, field coordinator for lead testing for ACORN, has been testing houses for lead since the program started nearly three years ago. When she came upon Judith Hemphill's home on Park Heights Avenue in July 2002, she says she immediately suspected it would test positive for lead. There was structural damage to the building and the house was being renovated--possible warning signs for lead, which can accumulate in dust. The test, indeed, revealed lead in each of the house's three bedrooms.
On Aug. 30, 2002, Lane mailed copies of the notice of defect, listing the lead contamination and other damages to the house, to both Hemphill, a single mother, and her landlord, Gloria Williams. Lane also explained to Hemphill that she could put her rent in an escrow account with Baltimore City's Rent Court until the repairs to her home were made and the lead was abated.
But before that could happen, Hemphill says, she received a notarized letter from her landlord telling her she had to move out because Williams planned to start an assisted-living business in the house.
Since Hemphill had a month-to-month lease on the apartment, she felt she had no other choice but leave. Afraid that her landlord would not pay her back the security deposit, she did not pay the last month's rent and found herself in eviction court.
"I always paid her the rent before it was due," Hemphill says. "I paid the water bill. I even had to take care of the lawn myself." She didn't know she could have mentioned the notice of defect for the lead and other damages in court to avoid a ruling against her. As a result, the court ruled for an eviction. But before she could be evicted, Hemphill moved out willingly on Nov. 18, 2002, after living in the apartment for just six months.
Hemphill believes her landlord evicted her because of the lead test. "I overheard her telling the next-door neighbor that it pissed her off that I allowed someone to come in and do lead testing," she says. "She said I didn't have a right to do that without her permission."
In reality, tenants of rental properties do have the right to have their homes tested for lead. When a tenant rents an apartment or house, the city requires that the landlord provide them with an educational packet explaining how to file notices of defect in the event of damages to the property or lead-poisoning risks. The packet includes a booklet titled "Protect Your Family From Lead in Your Home," which explains the dangers of lead poisoning in children and identifies possible signs of lead contamination such as chipping or peeling paint, water damage, windows and doors that will not open or close, and unusually high dust levels in living areas. (Hemphill says she received neither of these when she signed her lease with Williams.)
According to Maryland real-estate law, a tenant can give notice to the landlord whenever there are "serious and substantial" conditions at the property that could constitute a "substantial threat to the life, health, or safety of occupants." Some of these conditions include lack of heat, light, electricity, and hot and cold running water; lack of adequate sewage disposal; rodent infestations; structural defects; and the existence of lead paint. If a landlord fails to fix the problems in a "reasonable" time frame, the tenant may file to have rent paid into an escrow account with the clerk of the District Court until the repairs are complete. The law states that "a lessee may not be evicted, the tenancy may not be terminated, and the rent may not be raised for a lessee who elects" to pursue rights under this law. The law even states that landlords "may not evict or take any other retaliatory action" against a tenant who informs the landlord of lead-poisoning hazards at a property.
Though the law seeks to protect tenants from retaliatory evictions (and fines landlords who are found guilty of making them), it is extremely difficult to prove in court when they occur. If a tenant is evicted within six months of a notice of defect, the tenant may bring a case against the landlord, but it's up to the tenant to show proof that the eviction was unlawful.
Hemphill did not bring her landlord to court--she says she actually wasn't fond of living in the neighborhood anyway--but she does believe she was evicted illegally.
Williams maintains that is not the case. She says no tenant was ever evicted from the house at all because Hemphill moved out on her own, before an eviction could actually take place.
"Her lease was officially up by law, and the rent court said she had to get out," Williams said in a message left on City Paper's voice-mail system. "She moved out prior to the sheriff coming to put her stuff out." Williams says she received certification from the Maryland Department of the Environment that her house was lead-free on Nov. 4, 2002, more than a week before Hemphill moved.
Ruth Ann Norton, director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, says retaliatory evictions are becoming more common in Baltimore, but they are difficult for most people to fight. The responsibility lies with the tenant to show the burden of proof, and tenants are often required to take time off work to show up in court and get permission to file rent in escrow. Norton's office is handling more than 20 notice-of-defect-related cases, and four of them are retaliatory-eviction cases.
"A lot of people know that these evictions are incorrect," says Chris Corzine, an attorney for the coalition. "But they don't have the resources to be able to fight it."
Norton says most tenants also don't realize that they can use the notice of defect to protect them from eviction.
"They can take that to court and prosecute for retaliatory eviction because there is a record," Norton says. "The landlord has 30 days to do the repairs and do an inspection and give that to the tenant. If it is not done, the fine can be up to $250 per day. . . . [A tenant] can file a notice if there is chipping, peeling, flaking paint. We take the notice to court and get the judge to order a cleanup.
"Our greatest obstacle is that people are afraid," she continues. "Tenants would say, 'I don't want to file because I am three months behind in my rent.' If every time we can go to court I can show there was lead in the house, then almost always the court rules in favor of the tenant. Ninety-seven percent of eviction cases are not challenged in Maryland because of rent issues."
In response to the growing number of retaliatory evictions ACORN has seen, the group is proposing a bill in the state House of Delegates that would prevent eviction procedures if a landlord does not have a lead-free certification for that tenant's living space. The bill, HB 872, would make it impossible for landlords to even file eviction paperwork until the certification is produced. It was introduced last February and was held over in the House Environmental Matters Committee.
According to information on the Maryland Department of Environment's Web site, "Lead is one of the most significant and widespread environmental hazards for children in Maryland." High levels of lead can stunt normal brain growth, contribute to patterns of violent crime, and even cause mental retardation, hearing loss, and the loss of the ability to read. It is a particular problem in the city's lowest-income areas because of so-called slumlords who do not maintain their properties. Low-income neighborhoods also tend to be home to some of the oldest housing stock, in which lead dust accumulates after years of neglect and deterioration.
In 2000, a report in The Sun noted that the majority of lead-poisoning cases in children occurred in the dilapidated rental housing in the low-income, predominantly African-American neighborhoods of Park Heights, Sandtown, and Middle East. According to historical health records from John Hopkins University, these neighborhoods have had high rates of childhood lead poisoning since the 1930s.
"The CDC [Centers for Disease Control] says 6,300 kids in Baltimore are poisoned every year--there is no cure, it is irreversible," Norton says.
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