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California’s weak rules on lead leave families few options amid housing crisis

California’s weak rules on lead leave families few options amid housing crisis

Picture of Anna Maria Barry-Jester
Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

An old friend called a few weeks ago about a concern that’s familiar to most journalists who cover health: lead paint. Elizabeth, who asked to be referred to by her middle name out of respect for her family's privacy, lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter, and had recently moved into a new place after her longtime landlords decided to sell the house they were living in. Several weeks after the move, they realized the house was in worse shape than they’d realized — among other issues, paint was chipping off the walls in some areas and paint dust was collecting at windows. Concerned, they decided to have the place tested for lead.

The results were bad. The testing company said they’d send a full report the following day, Elizabeth told me, but in the meantime, they warned her against opening the windows, because it can increase lead paint dust, and suggested the family prepare to move. They rushed their daughter to the doctor to have her blood tested for lead and were relieved none was found. Still, they decided to move out of the home and have been staying at a friend’s place since. The landlord, who told them he wants to fix the home, let them out of their lease.

The episode speaks to the complicated reality of lead paint: it’s found in rental properties all over the country, and in many places, homeowners have few obligations to clean it up. For homes built before 1978, when lead paint was banned, owners must disclose if there’s a known lead problem. Even if there isn’t a known concern, they must tell buyers or renters that the potential for risk exists. If lead is found after someone moves in, however, there is no legal obligation to let renters out of their lease in many states, or to fix the problem. Amid California’s housing crunch, that can make it difficult to find an affordable home that’s safe for a toddler. Across the country, lower-income people and families can be financially trapped in lead’s toxic legacy.

The dangers of lead are well known, and there is no safe level of exposure. The neurotoxin can cause miscarriages, attention deficit disorder, learning disabilities and violent behavior. Elizabeth’s daughter is under 6, within the highest-risk age group when it comes to lead exposure. Like many toddlers, she likes to explore, walking and crawling her way around any space she occupies. In a home contaminated with lead, touching window sills and floors where paint chips and dust accumulate, even when cleaned regularly, can be dangerous.

Still, there are homes all over the country that are filled with the leaded paint and soil of previous decades. In Maryland, the state passed a law that essentially assumes any house built before 1978 is at risk for lead, said Ruth Ann Norton, the president and CEO of the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative. The state requires that all rentals be inspected before they go on the market. But that’s not the case in many places, including much of California.

Getting rid of the hazard can be an expensive problem to fix; a recent estimate found it cost on average $13,500 per housing unit to remediate for lead, according to Norton, but the cost can vary dramatically depending on what needs to be cleaned up and replaced and where the home is located.

Elizabeth’s problems are an extension of California’s soaring housing costs. The owners of her previous home are hoping to cash in on the area’s unprecedented real estate market (the 695-square-foot house was recently listed for $789,000). But for Elizabeth and her family, that decision left them searching for a new home at a time when prices are high and available rentals are few and far between. The family ended up in the lead-contaminated sublet after a failed housing search. She’d applied for several homes but lost out to other applicants. Since discovering the lead problem, they have applied to five more rentals, but so far, they’ve all gone to other people.

I know about Elizabeth’s challenges because she’s an old friend. But it’s hard to know the broader scope of the problem because there’s little data available. A recent report from the Government Accountability Office found that among housing built or paid for by the federal government, there are problems with tracking and fixing lead paint. The GAO also noted that the Department of Housing and Urban Development doesn’t have a plan in place to address situations where housing projects don’t follow federal rules around lead paint, and inspections are lacking for the Housing Choice voucher program.

By design, these programs are for people who have low enough incomes that the federal government has decided to step in and help pay for housing. That also means they are unlikely to have a lot of choice when it comes to housing.

In California, where rents have spiked over the last five years, even middle class renters have slim pickings when it comes to housing. Those options can diminish to zero if you’re also trying to rule out dangerous conditions for a toddler. That makes it all but impossible for a family to request a lead test and have any hope of being chosen in a competitive market.

That’s why advocates of stricter regulations for lead think there should be a more proactive effort to get the toxin out of homes. The laws in Maryland, said Norton, have led to a huge reduction in lead poisoning. They have also saved the state billions of dollars, according to a study by Duke University researchers. And, she said, the greater restrictions on homeowners didn’t lead to a mass of people taking rentals off of the market.

“It would be ideal that every time a unit is vacated, it’s made lead safe,” said Liseth Romero-Martinez, who manages the lead abatement program for the city of Los Angeles. Currently, the city can fine landlords who are caught doing work that’s unsafe, like exposing tenants to lead based-paint. But the fine is small and hard to enforce, said Romero-Martinez.

Last November, a California state appeals court told three paint companies they needed to pay more than a billion dollars for lead abatement in the state. In response, the companies helped to fund a ballot proposition that would have asked the general public to pick up much of the tab through taxes (it would have also barred future claims against the companies). The California legislature recently got the companies to drop the proposition in exchange for an agreement to hold “good-faith discussions” on how to pay for lead removal. But those bills and court decisions, like so many regulations around lead, deal mostly with homeowners. For renters, like lead, there is little remediation in sight in some places.

[Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images]


The Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 National Fellowship will provide $2,000 to $10,000 reporting grants, five months of mentoring from a veteran journalist, and a week of intensive training at USC Annenberg in Los Angeles from July 16-20. Click here for more information and the application form, due May 5.


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