News

Rhode Island House and Senate pass historic childhood lead mitigation legislation

The legislation is an important first step towards eliminating childhood lead poisoning.

June 9, 2023, 11:58 am

By Steve Ahlquist

The Rhode Island House and Senate passed a package of three bills to reduce childhood lead poisoning by ensuring landlords comply with lead-safety laws. Each bill is now expected be passed by the alternate chamber before heading to the governor’s desk.

All three bills were introduced at the request of Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha.

“Lead poisoning is absolutely preventable and our office will take any necessary action to strengthen the enforcement of our laws, and reduce lead exposure within our communities,” said Attorney General Neronha. “Taken collectively, these bills will over time increase the number of safe and affordable housing units and establish stiffer penalties for those who refuse to play by the rules. This is a solvable crisis, but only if we address this problem directly and forcefully. I know Rhode Island can do better by our residents, especially our children, and I’m grateful to the General Assembly for passing these stronger legal tools for lead-poisoning prevention.”

The move comes two days after Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha filed a complaint in Providence County Superior Court against a large Rhode Island landlord, Pioneer Investments LLC. Pioneer owns and operates over 175 rental properties around the state. The suit alleges that the landlord, among other infractions, failed to comply with lead-safety laws. The suit also alleges that, at various Pioneer properties, five children suffered lead poisoning and six others had elevated lead levels in their blood.

“This is totally inexcusable,” said Senator Dawn Euer (Democrat, District 13, Newport, Jamestown), who chairs the Senate Committee on Judiciary. “Five children have been poisoned at Pioneer properties, their families’ lives shaken. We must be more proactive and ensure this does not happen again. That means better tracking and enforcing compliance before kids get exposed.”

“We have no more solemn responsibility as leaders in government than providing for the health and safety of our children,” said Representative Mia Ackerman (Democrat, District 45, Cumberland, Lincoln). “The stories of these parents are absolutely heartbreaking. These bills will ensure this does not happen again and all Rhode Island children get to grow and thrive in a lead-free environment. I am proud we were able to get this done.”

Representative Ackerman and Senator Euer’s bills (2023-S 0804aa2023-H 6239A) would establish a statewide rental registry where landlords who own non-exempt buildings that were built before 1978 would be required to file lead conformance certificates already required by law. This would proactively ensure landlords like Pioneer are complying with lead-safety laws, rather than relying on legal remedies after children have been poisoned.

A second bill that passed as part of the package (2023-S 0729aa2023-H 6238A), is sponsored by Senator Tiara Mack (Democrat, District 6, Providence) and Representative David Morales (Democrat, District 7, Providence). It would allow tenants to pay their rent into an escrow account when there are unaddressed lead hazards in their homes. The legislation would ensure that tenants remain current on their rent obligations, and that landlords won’t be able to access the funds until they address the lead hazards.

“Everyone deserves safe, quality housing and that includes having a lead-free environment,” said Senator Mack. “If property owners choose not to remedy these dangerous lead poisoning situations, they should not have access to a renter’s money until the lead problem is resolved. The Pioneer case shows that this inexcusable poisoning of children has been allowed to happen in Providence and Rhode Island for too long, and this will empower tenants to fight back.”

“As evidenced again by the callous indifference of Pioneer Investments, there exist in our state negligent landlords who are willing to poison children in the pursuit of profit,” said Representative Morales. “Regardless of one’s socioeconomic status, all renters across our state deserve to live in a safe home that is free of lead hazards. This is why it is so important that we develop and enforce accountability standards that allow tenants to redirect their rent payments away from their landlord until the necessary repairs have been completed. Only then will we have lead-free homes that prioritize the health of renters.”

The third bill (2023-S 07392023-H 6201), sponsored by Senator Valerie Lawson(Democrat, District 14, East Providence) and Representative Matthew Dawson(Democrat, District 65, East Providence), would allow families affected by childhood lead poisoning to recover up to three times their actual damages (known as treble damages) if their landlord is found to have violated lead safety laws. That would create another mechanism to encourage compliance with existing law.

“You can’t put a price on your child’s health,” said Senator Lawson. “If an irresponsible landlord, like what’s alleged to have happened in the Pioneer case, poisons a child with lead, the family should be fully empowered to take them to court and hold them accountable. And hopefully that makes negligent landlords think twice about skirting the law.”

“Lead poisoning is a serious problem that is still affecting far too many residents in the state and if landlords are willfully neglecting necessary lead mitigation practices, they should be held accountable for putting their tenants at risk,” said Representative Dawson. “This bill will allow renters to seek the restitution they deserve if they are exposed to the dangers of lead by neglectful property owners.”

Lead poisoning can severely affect mental and physical development, especially for children under six years old. According to Department of Health data, 19% of Providence children are lead poisoned by the time they reach elementary school. That number is around 15% in East Providence, 14% in Newport and 5% in Cumberland.

The most common source of lead poisoning, according to the Mayo Clinic, is lead-based paint and dust in a child’s home. While lead paint was banned nationally in 1978, many older homes still contain significant amounts of lead paint, especially in states like Rhode Island with an older housing stock.

The Rhode Island Department of Health has programs to help home owners identify and mitigate lead poisoning risks. But renters ultimately rely on landlords to comply with lead safety regulations. Landlords may be unaware of lead safety regulations or, as alleged in the Pioneer case, may skirt them in pursuit of higher profits. With housing options so limited, families may be forced to rent a home contaminated with lead because they have no other options.

“There are laws that require landlords to make apartments lead-safe, but they’re not enforced,” said Grace Velazquez, a former Pioneer tenant whose twins were lead-poisoned while living in a Pioneer property. “My babies are almost three and they can’t feed themselves, they cannot express themselves with words. It’s totally unacceptable that this kind of non-compliance with the law is allowed in Rhode Island, and it must end now with the passage of these bills.”

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