Michael Lawyer, Office of Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Control
Being a parent means always worrying about your kids. Part of HUD’s mission is to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all. For a parent, one of the biggest factors in a quality home is that it won’t harm your children.
Unfortunately, many parents aren’t aware of the harm that lead-based paint can do. Even though lead was banned from house paint in 1978, there are still an estimated 37 million homes with lead-based paint, and 23 million homes with lead hazards capable of poisoning children. Lead poisoning damages a child’s central nervous system, leading to brain damage and a host of other complications. The most common way for children to be exposed to lead is the dust generated by opening and closing windows with lead based paint.
Landlords of pre-1978 housing have a legal duty to disclose to their tenants information about the risks of lead, and about the presence of any known lead-based paint and lead-based paint hazards so that someone who is applying to become a tenant can make informed decisions and take precautions. Most landlords do disclose, and many go even further and treat deteriorated paint to make their buildings safer for children to live in. However, not all landlords disclose when and how they are supposed to. Landlords who don’t disclose properly may be referred to where I work, the Lead Programs Enforcement Division of the Office of Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Control.
Wilmette Realty in Chicago was one of the landlords that didn’t disclose properly. Many children living in Wilmette’s buildings had elevated blood lead levels, the first sign of lead poisoning. We investigated and found that, although Wilmette had made some disclosures to their tenants, they had failed to do all that is required. In partnership with EPA and DOJ, HUD began prosecuting the case.
The Treasury could have been entitled to millions of dollars in fines if we had won at trial, but children can’t live in fines. Rather than engage in expensive litigation that, even if successful, could only result in a landlord paying fines, we settled the case with Wilmette and related companies to control lead-based paint in the units so they would be safer for children to live in. Wilmette agreeing to pay a small fine, but, far more importantly, it will put $2.3 million into making the homes of 463 families safer for raising their children. As a HUD employee, I’m proud we found a way to meet our mission of creating quality affordable homes. As a dad, I’m proud that there are several hundred families who will be able to tuck their kids in at night with one less thing to worry about.