Housing advocacy group sues state over lead law

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

Staff Writer
Published: 11/25/2019 3:51:50 PM

HOLYOKE — A local housing advocacy organization is suing state health officials over the commonwealth’s lead-paint poisoning prevention law, arguing that the law has incentivized landlords to discriminate against families with children rather than abate lead paint in their buildings.

The Holyoke-based Massachusetts Fair Housing Center and two families, one of whom lives in Northampton, have filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the heads of the state’s Department of Public Health and its Bureau of Environmental Health and Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. The plaintiffs allege that the commonwealth’s 1971 Lead Poisoning Prevention and Control Act is not fulfilling its purpose because the law only requires building owners to delead their housing when a child under age 6 lives there. 

“Unfortunately, this section of the Lead Law — which was intended to protect families with children under age six — has harmed them instead,” the lawsuit alleges. “It incentivizes landlords to violate the law: either by refusing to rent to these families, by imposing different terms and conditions on these families, or by refusing to delead their properties before renting to these families, who are unjustly forced to choose between housing and the health of their children.”

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

In an email, Department of Public Health Director of Media Relations Ann Scales wrote that the department does not comment on pending litigation. The Bureau of Environmental Health, which runs the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, is housed within the DPH.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit include a Worcester resident and a Florence couple who have a 1-year-old son and allege that they faced housing discrimination based on the state’s lead law.

The lawsuit states that the Florence couple were renting from a landlord in Northampton when the mother became pregnant. In March of last year, they informed their landlord that they were expecting a child and their landlord told them the next day that they had to move out because her daughter wanted to move into the apartment, the lawsuit alleges. 

As an expecting family, the couple struggled to find housing in the Pioneer Valley, ultimately having to stay at a friend's house before finding more expensive housing where they could live, according to the lawsuit.

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 couple brought a housing discrimination case against the landlord together with the Massachusetts Fair Housing Center, and the state’s Commission Against Discrimination found probable cause that the landlord had discriminated against them, according to the lawsuit. The parties reached a settlement that required the landlord to pay the couple damages and to delead the apartment when it becomes vacant, according to the lawsuit.

In an interview, the Massachusetts Fair Housing Center’s executive director, Meris Bergquist, pointed to a DPH data brief this year that notes only 10 percent of pre-1978 housing stock — which accounts for 71 percent of all housing in the state — has had a lead inspection and been confirmed free from lead hazards. 

The report goes on to say that with 1.8 million housing units in the state built before 1978, “children will likely continue to be exposed to high levels of lead in their homes.”

“The tragedy of childhood lead poisoning is that it’s preventable,” Bergquist said.

Bergquist said that the original idea of the law was that landlords would gradually be required to delead state’s housing stock. But she said that never happened, despite later efforts by state lawmakers to strengthen the law. She also noted that the Massachusetts Advocacy Center — now known as Massachusetts Advocates for Children — authored a paper in 1974 that recommended the state adopt legislation that required deleading regardless of the age of residents.

“I don’t know why the state hasn’t reached this conclusion sooner because they have been aware of it for a very long time,” she said.

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 percent of the city’s housing stock was built before 1978.

The 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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