Workers remove a lead service line before it is replaced by a brass one at 15 Wesleyan Ave., in Providence, on Wednesday, May 24, 2023. The removal happened shortly after the City of Providence and Providence Water announced a new program to replace private side lead service lines for free. (Photo by Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)
PROVIDENCE — Three bills regarding tenant lead protections became law Wednesday after receiving the governor’s approval.
Gov. Dan McKee signed the bills that establish a statewide registry of rental units built before 1978 and their lead certification, allow tenants to pay rent into an escrow account until a landlord remediates lead issues, and let tenants with children suffering lead poisoning seek treble damages if the landlord is found liable.
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,” Neronha said in a statement. “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.”
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.
It is particularly prevalent in communities with older homes built before lead building materials were banned in 1978. In Rhode Island, more than 80% of housing units were built before 1980.
S804aa and H6239A, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Sen. Dawn Euer, a Newport Democrat, and House Deputy Majority Whip Rep. Mia Ackerman, a Cumberland Democrat, establish a public rental registry requiring landlords to file lead conformance certifications, proactively tackling lead compliance as opposed to waiting for legal action after the fact.
“This is totally inexcusable,” Euer said. “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 Ackerman. “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.”
The bills were passed by the General Assembly the week after 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 units 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.
A second bill, S0729aa and its counterpart H6238A, sponsored by Providence Democrat Sen. Tiara Mack and Rep. David Morales, a Providence Democrat. The legislation allows tenants to go to court seeking the ability to pay rent into an escrow account until a landlord remediates lead issues found in homes. The legislation ensures 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,” Mack said. “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.”
“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,” Morales said. “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 final set of bills, S739 and H6201, sponsored by East Providence Democrat Sen. Valarie Lawson, and Rep. Matthew Dawson, also an East Providence Democrat, lets families affected by childhood lead poisoning recover up to three times their actual damages if their landlord is found to have violated lead safety laws.
“You can’t put a price on your child’s health,” said 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. This bill will allow renters to seek the restitution they deserve if they are exposed to the dangers of lead by neglectful property owners,” Dawson said.
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