Holyoke nonprofit’s challenge to lead paint law can proceed in court

  • Decades-old peeling paint which contains lead. TNS/STOCK IMAGE

Staff Writer
Published: 10/1/2021 4:02:16 PM

SPRINGFIELD — A federal judge has ruled that a local fair housing center’s lawsuit can proceed against the state over its law requiring landlords to abate lead paint hazards in their housing only when children below the age of six are living there.

In 2019, the Holyoke-based Massachusetts Fair Housing Center sued the state over its 1971 Lead Poisoning Prevention and Control Act, arguing that the law has incentivized landlords to discriminate against families with children rather than abate lead paint in their buildings. On Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Mark Mastroianni denied the state’s motion to dismiss the case, allowing the case to move to trial.

“What we hope is that we’re one important step closer to ending a policy that has for the last 50 years harmed families with children under the age of six,” Meris Bergquist, the fair housing center’s executive director, said in a phone interview Friday.

Efforts to reach the lawyer representing the three defendants in the case — Department of Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel, Massachusetts Bureau of Environmental Health Director Jana Ferguson and Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program Director Terry Howard — were unsuccessful Friday.

In its lawsuit, the Massachusetts Fair Housing Center argues that the state’s lead law, which was intended to get landlords to gradually delead the state’s housing stock, has resulted in housing discrimination against households with children while resulting in little abatement of lead paint hazards. They have argued that the state’s lead law violates the 1988 federal Fair Housing Act, which outlawed housing discrimination against families with minor children.

Two families who say they faced housing discrimination because of the lead law are also plaintiffs in the case.

One of the plaintiffs is a couple who say they were renting an apartment in Northampton when they got pregnant in 2018. The landlord allegedly made them move out of the apartment the day after they informed her. The lawsuit alleges the couple spoke to the new tenant in their old apartment who stated that the landlord admitted that she asked them to move out “because she did not have a lead certificate and did not want to delead the apartment.”

The lead law was updated in 1987 to add language saying a landlord could not comply with the law by discriminating against families with young children. The plaintiffs, however, say there is no evidence that that language reduced rental housing discrimination or increased lead paint abatement.

The law was again amended in 2011 to add a provision allowing landlords to delay occupancy of rental housing by 30 days to delead a property when a child under 6 will be moving into the home.

A 2016 study by the state Department of Public Health found that property owners had only reported deleading work in around 10% of the state’s pre-1978 housing stock. Lead paint was banned in residential paint in 1978. Massachusetts has the fourth-oldest housing stock in the entire country, according to the department.

As an example of how the law could be improved, the plaintiffs point to other regions that have passed universal lead-abatement policies. The Philadelphia City Council, for example, in 2019 passed an amendment to its lead poisoning-prevention law that requires all landlords who own housing built before 1978 to abate lead paint in order to receive a rental license.

In a news release, the Massachusetts Fair Housing Center noted that a bill pending before the state Legislature would require the deleading of all rental properties in the state, starting with communities that suffer the highest rates of childhood lead poisoning.

Locally, the DPH in 2017 identified Holyoke, Chicopee and Springfield as high-risk communities for childhood lead poisoning. In Northampton, census data from 2000 showed that around 85% of the city’s housing stock was built before 1978.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has concluded that there is no safe level of exposure to lead, which can have severe and permanent impacts on a child’s mental and physical development.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.
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