On the House: Lead paint rule baffles landlords

Posted: October 21, 2012

Make no mistake about it, David Dietz enjoys being a landlord.

He tries to be a good one, often showing up within minutes of a call from a tenant at any of six units in Northeast Philadelphia or the two in Atlantic City when a toilet clogs or a sink drips, changing a room color from his standard neutral or white to potato-chip yellow or Medici blue.

These days, however, Dietz finds himself a bit, well, confused, as he puts it. The reason for his confusion, apparently shared by many small landlords in Philadelphia, is city Ordinance 1000-11A, effective two months from Sunday.

This ordinance requires that all rental property owners who start new leases after Dec. 21 to families with children under age 6 certify that these properties have been tested for lead paint.

If evidence of lead-paint contamination is found in housing built before manufacture of this paint was banned in 1978, it must be remediated. Properties built after 1978 do not require testing.

Dietz understands the concerns the law is attempting to address. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show 6 percent of all children ages 1 to 2 years and 11 percent of African American children ages 1 to 5 years have blood-lead levels in the toxic range.

Lead is a potent poison that can affect individuals at any age, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology.

Children are especially vulnerable because their rapidly developing nervous systems are particularly sensitive to the effects of lead, the academy said.

Elevated lead levels are found in about 1,000 Philadelphia children a year, or 3 percent of those tested, city health officials said during hearings on the bill.

Understood, yes, but with 60 days to go, "No one has explained how the law works," Dietz said.

Landlords such as Dietz fear they will be liable if the "dust-wipe test" to determine the presence of lead dust on surface areas of the apartment isn't done properly and the lead test on a tenant's child - routine in annual physicals for children up to age 6 - shows elevated levels in their blood.

An elevated blood-lead level in a child is defined as 10 or more micrograms of lead in a deciliter of blood.

The city said this July 17:

To be valid, the certificate must be based on an inspection conducted by a lead-risk assessor or certified lead-dust sampling technician no more than 24 months before the lease is signed.

After a visual examination, the following wipe samples for settled dust shall be collected on windowsills and floors in specified areas, including those in which children 6 and under spend most of their waking hours.

All samples, along with one control sample, should be collected by a lead-risk assessor or certified lead-dust sampling technician and sent to a certified laboratory pursuant to EPA regulations.

The EPA believes this kind of lead-hazard screen is more useful in a house built after 1960, since it is "recommended for residences that are in generally good condition" with little visible dust and paint in good condition.

Darrell M. Zaslow, counsel for the Homeowners Association of Philadelphia, acknowledged in the group's April newsletter that compliance "may well be complicated from a bureaucratic standpoint," and the costs of inspection "are sure to add to the already overwhelming cost of providing private rental housing."

While some landlords have responded by putting their properties up for sale, Dietz has no plans to do so - yet.

If it gets that difficult, "I probably will sell," he said. "I'd hate to get out of the business because of the government."

"On the House" appears Sundays in The Inquirer. Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com or @alheavens at Twitter.

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