The US recently settled a lawsuit charging two Michigan landlords with failing to their tell tenants about dangerously high levels of lead in their rented homes. Federal law, as well as the laws in most states, have strict legal requirements on property owners and lead in any form on their property.
The suit, which was filed in a Michigan federal court, charged two landlords, Jose and Guillermina Sierra, with failing to tell their tenants about potentially dangerously high levels of lead in the homes the tenants were leasing. Legal trouble began when local health officials discovered that children in some of the their housing units in the Grand Rapids area had high levels of lead in their blood.
According to federal officials, including agents from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), landlords agreed to spend about $350,000 to rid their rented residential units of lead. Work is scheduled to be finished within six months at units where pregnant women or children under 6 tears old live.
The main federal law dealing with lead is the Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act of 1992, or "Title X." It was passed specifically to protect families from exposure to lead, whether it be in household paint, airborne dust, or in the soil under or around residential property. It gave HUD and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the job of devising a rule requiring disclosure of known lead problems.
They came up with the Lead Disclosure Rule. It applies to most residential housing built before 1978. In general, it requires property owners to disclose any information they have regarding lead-based paint before the sell or lease their property. Specifically, the Rule requires owners to:
- Give an EPA-approved pamphlet about lead-based paint hazards
- Tell prospective buyers and tenants about any known lead-based paint or lead-based paint hazards on the property, as well as the specific location of the lead hazard
- Give prospective buyers and tenants any records and reports they may have about lead-based hazards on the property, such as the results of any tests done to determine the presence of lead or records of any efforts to fix or "remediate" any lead problems
- Include a Lead Warning Statement in the sales contract or lease stating that the property owner has complied with the Rule's notice requirements
- Give home buyers a 10-day period to let them have the property inspected for lead-based hazards
Violating Title X and the Rule is serious. A property owner may be ordered to fix any problems before the property may be sold or rented, and fines and penalties may be imposed. For example, the Sierra's not only have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix the lead problems on their property, but they also have to pay a $6,000 fine.
There are state laws, too, that owners need to follow, and violating them can be just as costly. For example, in late 2008, the Attorney General of Vermont, William Sorrell, filed suit against a landlord for violating state lead laws. The case settled when the landlord agreed to fix the property and pay a $12,000 fine.
Title X was enacted because of grave dangers posed by lead, especially to children. According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 250,000 children between the ages of 1 and 5 years have dangerously high lead levels in their blood. "Lead poisoning" - when blood levels are too high - can cause many physical and mental problems, such as:
- Difficulty with or "slowed" learning, including reading and learning disabilities
- Behavioral problems, such as hyperactivity
- Reduced IQ and attention span
- Death (with very high lead levels)
For the most part, the heath problems caused by lead poisoning are irreversible, and there's no cure for it, either.
Protect Yourself and Your Family
If you own property built before 1978 and you're thinking of selling or renting it out, be sure to give prospective buyers and tenants a copy of the EPA lead pamphlet. If you know of any lead-based hazards, fix them before you sell or rent. Depending on the nature of the problem and the laws in your state, it's likely easier and cheaper to fix a problem than to pay the fines and penalties and remediation costs under the lead laws.
If you're in the market to buy or rent:
- Ask for a copy of the EPA lead pamphlet if the owner doesn't offer it
- Get a home inspection done. Usually, these professionals can spot lead problems quickly
- If you see peeling or chipped paint, ask the owner to re-paint the area using safety measures that minimize the risk of putting lead dust into the air and surrounding surfaces
If you've already bought or rented a pre-1978 home:
- Contact the landlord, seller, or real estate agent and tell them about your concerns
- Have any child in your home tested for lead poisoning, especially any child under 6 years old. Most states and cities offer testing programs
- Regularly wash your children’s hands and toys because they can become contaminated with lead from household dust or outside exterior
- Regularly wet-mop floors and wet-wipe the home's windows
Whether you're a property owner or prospective buyer or tenant, it's important to know your rights and responsibilities when it comes to lead on the property. Taking some time educate yourself and ask the right questions can help keep you and your family healthy and keep you out of legal trouble.
Questions For Your Attorney
- I bought a pre-1978 home about 5 years ago, and we just discovered lead paint in the basement that the previous owner had remodeled. He didn't disclose anything about lead paint, though. Is it too late to have the previous owner fix the problem?
- Can I cancel the sales contract I signed if my home inspection shows the presence of lead in the home?
- Does a buyer breach a sales contract when she refuses to buy a home after the seller refuses to fix a lead hazard?