Bay State Reworks Lead Law to Ease Burden on Landlords

MASSACHUSETTS landlords are hailing a new proposal that would ease regulations on removing lead paint from their housing property.

The bill introduces reforms to the state's lead-paint-prevention law, the nation's most-comprehensive program of its kind.

Passed by the state House of Representatives this month, the measure would ease the current law's strict liability standard for landlords, increase tax credits to property owners who delead their housing units, and give landlords greater flexibility in using temporary measures to delead their apartments. The bill could face a tough battle in the state Senate this fall, however.

Real-estate-industry representatives, who applaud the proposal, say the current law imposes too many restrictions and costs on property owners. "There is, in my view, a consensus viewpoint that the current lead law is not working, that property owners are not deleading, and that discrimination is occurring in the housing sector because of our lead law," says Robert Nash, government-affairs director for the Massachusetts Association of Realtors.

Despite the cost and hassle of removing the paint, its removal is being demanded because lead-paint poisoning is a concern among public-health experts and environmentalists. Peeling paint and lead dust from older buildings are considered health risks for young children. Herbert Needleman, a University of Pittsburgh researcher, has linked lead-paint poisoning to learning disabilities and higher high-school-dropout rates. The problem is acute in older cities, particularly in the Northeast, he says.

The issue has been a priority for the federal Housing and Urban Development office. Last December, HUD awarded about $50 million to several cities, counties, and states for lead-paint removal in low- and moderate-income housing. HUD will award $100 million this year. States receiving money must already have licensing programs for inspectors and deleaders. Thus, 12 states have recently introduced lead-paint legislation and programs.

Doug Farquhar, attorney for the National Conference of State Legislatures, says: "You just don't see this kind of response for environmental health hazards." The Massachusetts proposal, "[is] not really trying to [break] new ground, as much as trying to make their program more efficient and more effective."

Massachusetts landlords have long pushed for change. Although the state says the average cost to delead an apartment is $3,500, John Melley, political and local-affairs coordinator at the Massachusetts Association for Realtors, says it is about $10,000.

LANDLORDS say they don't want to rent to families with young children because of liability. "There are people in the industry who felt they had a Hobson's choice: They can choose between denying an apartment to a family and facing a Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination lawsuit, or rent to the family and face the potential for a seven-figure lawsuit," says Boston landlord John Coppola.

Mr. Farquhar says small-time landlords are squeezed by deleading costs. The state proposal would apply to buildings of four or fewer units. "The people who are renting to low-income people aren't necessarily the ones with deep pockets that can go and clean up their places," he says.

Stephanie Pollack, director of the Lead Poisoning Project at the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston, calls the proposal "well-intentioned" but "unworkable." She says it encourages landlords to take temporary action, like removing only peeling paint and dust, instead of getting rid of all lead paint, a process called abatement, which is emphasized in the current law. Also, the public-health department lacks resources to conduct yearly inspections of buildings fitted with "interim controls."

"Massachusetts is the forerunner of the debate of what is happening around the country - how you strike the balance to protect kids and assign responsibility to landlords that they can handle," she says.

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