Lead paint law proves costly for landlords

October 18, 1997


Staff Writer

Hagerstown landlord Dick Chaney doesn't have much good to say about Maryland's lead paint law.

The law, approved by the General Assembly in 1995, already has cost him tens of thousands of dollars in window replacements, vinyl siding and other renovation work at two of his three rental buildings, Chaney said.

But Maryland Department of the Environment officials and child advocates, citing the state's large percentage of older rental units and child lead poisoning rates nearly eight times the national average, say the law was sorely needed.

Chaney said he spent more than $500 on a special vacuum and certification classes so he can do the state-required preparation work himself rather than pay a certified contractor, he said.


Still, Chaney said, it's costing him $100 to $150 every time a tenant leaves. He said he had turnover in six of his 12 units last year.

And you can't raise rents enough - he upped his $25 - to recover the added expense, he said.

State regulations designed to reduce the risk of lead paint poisoning for children has made being a landlord less profitable, raised rents and hurt the local market for residential investment property, say Washington County real estate agents and rental property owners.

Complying with the law - which requires a special cleaning procedure and inspection every time a tenant vacates a unit - is expensive and a headache, they say.

Given the lack of similar laws in most states, some question whether Maryland lawmakers overreacted to the problem.

Western Maryland lawmakers Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, and Del. Bruce Poole, D-Washington, supported an unsuccessful attempt last year to limit the law to apartments where children under age 6 live.

Lead paint regulation proponents say the law is in the interest of landlords as well as tenants. They say it caps liability for landlords who comply with the law while giving them a far cheaper option than totally removing lead paint from a property.

The Maryland Department of the Environment estimates that 95 percent of homes built before 1950 contain lead paint, according to agency spokesman Quentin Banks.

Swallowing or breathing lead paint can poison children, slowing development and causing learning disabilities and behavioral problems.

The Maryland law requires owners of rental property built before 1950 to participate in the state's Lead Paint Poisoning Prevention Program, Banks said.

Owners of rental property built between 1950 and 1978 have the option to participate, he said.

To comply, their property must either pass a test for lead-contaminated dust or undergo certain risk reduction steps, including removal or repainting of chipping, peeling and flaking paint and a special cleaning procedure, Banks said.

The work must be done by state-licensed workers, which can include owners and their employees if they complete the required course, he said.

If they follow the law, property owners limit their liability to no more than $17,000 in relocation and non-covered medical expenses if a child turns up with lead poisoning, Banks said.

Health issue

Blood levels in Maryland youngsters tested for lead poisoning support the law's validity, said Barbara Conrad, lead coordinator for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Maryland has a higher percentage of cases requiring medical treatment than the national average, Conrad said.

The statewide average was 3.1 percent in 1996, compared to a 0.4 percent national average, she said.

Most of the childhood lead poisoning cases in Maryland have been traced to residential lead paint exposure, Conrad said.

The rate of testing differs drastically around the state, ranging from 44 percent in Baltimore City to much lower rates in outlying areas, Conrad said.

An estimated 6.6 percent of Washington County children age 6 and younger were tested for lead poisoning in 1996, she said.

Of those 658 children, 64 children, or 9.7 percent of those tested, had blood levels deemed "of concern" by Center for Disease Control standards. Fifteen children, or 2.3 percent, showed levels requiring medical attention, Conrad said.

Except in extreme cases, "treatment" consists of stopping the child's exposure to the poisoning source, she said.

"The best treatment is prevention, really," Conrad said.

Still, some in the real estate business say they wonder if the law was really necessary in light of its negative impact.

Property manager Craig Harshman said he never had any problems with lead complaints before the law was changed.

About 70 percent of the more than 300 properties managed through Hagerstown Properties fall under the law, he said.

Harshman said the law has been a pain for him because most landlords aren't in compliance when they come in for management services and often get angry when he tells them they'll have to obey.

Rents go up

It has hurt tenants because rents have had to go up to help offset the added costs, he said.

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