PROVIDENCE — 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, some sponsored in each …
PROVIDENCE — 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, some sponsored in each chamber by East Providence legislators Sen. Valarie Lawson (D-Dist. 14) and Rep. Matt Dawson (D-Dist. 65).
Each bill must now be passed by the alternate chamber before heading to the governor’s desk. The others were sponsored by Sen. Dawn Euer and Sen. Tiara Mack as well as Rep. Mia Ackerman and Rep. David Morales.
The move comes two days 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 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.
The bills (2023-S 0739, 2023-H 6201) sponsored by Sen. Lawson and Rep. Dawson 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 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.”
Added Dawson, “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."
Deputy Majority Whip Ackerman and Chairwoman Euer’s bill (2023-S 0804aa, 2023-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 0729aa, 2023-H 6238A), is sponsored by Sen. Mack (D-Dist. 6, Providence) and Rep. Morales (D-Dist. 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.
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.
All three bills were introduced at the request of the Attorney General 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 Neronha.
He continued, “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.”