Metro, News

City court enforces lead code with steep fines

Housing court key to ensuring homeowners repair, reduce threat of lead in rental properties

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, April 5, 2019

It is well known that lead violations can cost kids their health, but it turns out in Providence, they can also cost property owners a pretty penny.

On Thursday morning, Chief Justice of Providence Housing Court William Rampone issued a fine of $44,050 and an additional $50 per day to the owner of a property on Atwells Street for noncompliance with Rhode Island lead legislation. That ruling was just one of 17 cases the judge heard yesterday in Providence’s monthly lead court, which he has presided over for 15 years.

“I’ve seen children affected by lead, and it is not a pretty sight,” Rampone said, “but I see tremendous enforcement being performed by the city on lead abatement.”

From October 2017 through September 2018, Providence issued 628 Notices of Violation for lack of lead certificates, which resulted in 267 properties becoming lead-compliant, according to information provided by Executive Director of the Childhood Lead Action Project Laura Brion.

Obtaining a lead certificate “is a minimum housing code standard … baked into the basic idea of what it means to have a safe rental property,” said Brion, who works to eliminate lead poisoning through education, parent support and advocacy.

Lead is commonly spread through lead paint — which was used on about 80 percent of houses before it was banned in 1978 — and through soil contaminated by lead gasoline, which was outlawed in 1986. Preventing lead poisoning usually involves covering up lead paint, removing or covering contaminated soil and replacing surfaces that grind paint, such as old windows, which Brion calls “little lead dust machines.” But taking these precautions can be costly, and as a result, some landlords neglect them, she added.

“Lead poisoning is one of those tricky multifaceted issues that requires a lot of different people to be involved in solving it, and (requires) approaches to changing behavior, breaking down barriers (and) making resources available,” Brion said.

In 2016, 5 percent of Rhode Island children under the age of six exhibited elevated blood lead levels, which was down from 6 percent in 2012. Still, as of October 2018, there were 361 active Providence properties without lead certificates. Additionally, some properties can evade lead inspection through loopholes in the Lead Hazard Mitigation Act — which has relaxed regulation on owner occupied, elder zoned and temporary properties. In one of yesterday’s cases, a lead count was dismissed after the property was discovered to be owner occupied.

KellyAnn Cameron, a member of Childhood Lead Action Project, lives in an apartment in the same building as its owner and as a result, her home does not need a lead certificate.

“It’s still important to get lead abated and be aware and be doing inspections,” she said.

While Cameron does have a personal stake in lead code enforcement, her frequent appearances in lead court are on behalf of a greater constituency. She maintains a presence in the courthouse for the Childhood Lead Action Project, keeping tabs on current cases involving lead violations and how the city is dealing with them. She notes trends in the hearings and flags cases of interest, such as those involving recurring property owners or tenant-occupied properties.

“The big thing that we often are looking at is how people are talking about lead in the court,” Cameron said. “How is the judge talking about it, how is the assistant city solicitor, how are the banks, the lawyers, the owners, … how are they phrasing the lead issues?”

Many cases in lead court end with abatement, making Providence homes safer for tenants. Yesterday, four cases were dismissed for having had all counts abated.

“People are doing what they’re supposed to,” Rampone said after a series of dismissals. “That makes me happy.”

Still, Brion emphasized the need to remain vigilant in the prevention of lead poisoning across all of Providence.

“It’s really important for us to not rest on our laurels and brag about what a great lead poisoning prevention system we have … when it’s painfully obvious that there are plenty of people … who are falling through the cracks of the system as it exists,” Brion said.

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