Lead law update part of anti-discrimination push

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BOSTON (SHNS) – In the summer of 2016, Worcester resident Teresa Decker and her then-two-year-old son were living in “horrendous” conditions, featuring rodent and bug infestations, drug trafficking in the building, and squatters.

Decker began searching for somewhere new to live, but as she recounted Wednesday, she “quickly learned that this was going to be an extremely difficult journey” because she had a Section 8 voucher providing a housing subsidy and because, with a young son, she had to be notified of any lead risks under state law.

It took her until February 2018 to find a new place, Decker said.

“Every time I contacted a landlord or an agency, they would react negatively to me every time I mentioned I had a child under the age of 6 and that I needed a lead certificate,” Decker said during a virtual Fair Housing Day on Wednesday. “Agencies wouldn’t even give me the time of day. They wouldn’t even allow me to show and prove my qualifications to rent. Landlords would just tell me ‘I don’t have a lead certificate and I’m not willing to obtain one.’ “

The coalition behind the Fair Housing Day event named legislation updating the state’s lead-free housing law (H 2346 / S 1430) as one of its top priorities, pointing to Decker’s experience as an example of obstacles that other families across Massachusetts face.

Meris Bergquist, executive director of the Massachusetts Fair Housing Center, said more than 3,000 Bay State children are afflicted with lead poisoning each year, and they are often exposed to lead paint in older households.

She said that according to the Department of Public Health, Massachusetts has 1.8 million dwellings that still have not been made lead-safe for children in the decades since enactment of the state’s Lead Law.

“Lead poisoning, as I’m sure most of you know, is a devastating childhood disease, and the tragedy of lead poisoning is that it’s completely avoidable,” Bergquist said. “These (bills) would get us to the point where we reduce about 88 percent of childhood lead poisoning.”

The Lead Law, enacted in 1971, requires removal or control of lead paint in houses where children under the age of 6 reside. However, lawmakers and other officials have known for years that many property owners still are not removing lead from older buildings, particularly in Gateway Cities, according to Rep. David LeBoeuf, who filed the House legislation aimed at updating the law.

His bill would phase in a new mandatory schedule for removing lead paint or other sources of excessive lead regardless of whether a young child lives in the building, starting in communities with significant numbers of lead poisoning cases.

“The challenges related to lead haven’t gone away. Only 10 percent of housing constructed before 1978 has actually been de-leaded or had a leading inspection,” LeBoeuf said. “One of the more disturbing statistics is that, in 2017, the most recent data we have, 3,555 Massachusetts children met the CDC definition of lead poisoning. This is clearly a public health crisis.”

Although Massachusetts already has several housing anti-discrimination laws in place, advocates and researchers warn that the practice remains widespread.

Researchers from Suffolk University Law School, Analysis Group and The Boston Foundation recruited mock renters to test the market in the greater Boston region. In their results published last year, they concluded that Black prospective renters faced discrimination 71 percent of the time and those with Section 8 housing vouchers, regardless of race, faced discrimination in 86 percent of cases.

With identical qualifications and timeframes, Black participants were able to see apartments 48 percent of the time, compared to 80 percent for white renters, according to William Berman, a Suffolk professor and one of the study’s authors.

“If you want to see five units and you have a voucher, you have to call 50 housing providers. That’s a terrible burden to put on our most vulnerable,” Berman said Wednesday. “If you’re white, you get to see twice the number of apartments as if you’re Black.”

“Real estate brokers properly trained and motivated can be gatekeepers against illegal discrimination, and that’s how it should be,” Berman added. “But unfortunately, our study revealed that the opposite is happening.”

Several bills that advocates highlighted Wednesday aim to eliminate those massive gaps in outcome by better training real estate brokers and by more strongly punishing those who perpetuate discrimination.

Bills from Rep. Adrian Madaro of East Boston, Rep. Carlos Gonzalez of Springfield and Sen. Adam Gomez of Springfield (H 428 / S 208) would lengthen license suspension periods for real estate brokers or salespeople found to discriminate and would empower fair housing enforcement agencies to refer more cases to registration boards.

“While our governments may no longer be as directly involved in actively furthering housing discrimination, we have a duty to course-correct and amend historical errors that continue to leave communities of color behind,” Madaro said. “This looks like increasing the enforcement of fair housing and anti-discrimination laws we already have on our books, allowing residents to report discrimination with greater ease, and increasing the representation of voucher-holders, public housing tenants and people of color on the Board of Real Estate Brokers.”

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