Wednesday, April 8, 2020
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Balto. rent-to-own homes have lots of lead

Poor people who entered into rent-to-own contracts so they could buy houses with no money down in Baltimore and several other cities now find themselves faced with an insurmountable problem: lead poisoning for their kids, the New York Times reports.

Abandoned rowhouses in Baltimore

Typically these houses were abandoned or foreclosed and purchased by investors at extremely low prices. For example, a home in Baltimore described in the story was purchased from Fannie Mae following a foreclosure for only $5,000. The owner now charges $440 a month for a woman and her mom to “rent-to-own” the home.

But the actual deed won’t transfer to the woman’s name until the final payment is made, which means she doesn’t currently own the home. These seller-financed sales, also called rent-to-own or contracts for deed, give poor people an opportunity to live in a home without having to qualify for a bank mortgage. Investors use these tools ubiquitously, as they often don’t even have to register the “sale” of the home until it’s final, which it almost never is.

The “landlords” can then evict people quickly, based on the terms of an agreement. That agreement, most likely, also transfers any responsibility for making repairs or renovations in the home to the new “buyer,” who takes the home “as is,” to use a salesperson’s term.

So, when lead poisoning is found in the buyer’s children’s blood or lead paint is found chipping off a banister in the house, the buyer is stuck with the repairs. Many, many homes in Baltimore have lead paint, and the city has specified that many of them are unfit for human occupancy. But unless there’s obviously someone living in the house, rent-to-own homes have a tendency to slip through the cracks.

“This is something that everyone has an obligation to fix—certainly the landlord has an obligation as well,” the Times quoted Dr Leana Wen, Baltimore’s health commissioner, as saying about the lead paint problem in many of these homes.

The contracts for deed put buyers in a double-bind:

  1. The buyers, many of whom speak English with limited proficiency, are often unable to hire an attorney who could explain the provisions that hold the owner-investor harmless for any needed repairs or renovations.
  2. Since the buyers technically don’t own the home, many lead abatement programs and grants don’t allow renters to receive funds to help with the repairs or removal of lead.

A recent summary of the research on lead exposure and school achievement, prepared by the Expert Panel on Educational Services for Children Affected by Lead, reviews several studies on low levels of lead exposure in places as diverse as North Carolina, Connecticut, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Rhode Island, New York, Massachusetts, and Ohio. The review of the scientific literature shows a consistent link between low-level lead exposure and school achievement.

It concludes that “lead exposure is responsible for a significant and modifiable effect on the achievement gap … and [results in] substantial costs to local communities.”

Children who have too much lead in their blood are at higher risk of many problems related to healthy development:

  • attention deficits, such as distractibility, inattention, and impulsivity
  • executive function disorders (organization skills, self-control, working memory, etc.)
  • impairment of visual-spatial skills, like hand-eye coordination
  • disturbances in behavior and social conduct
  • poor phonological, lexical, and sentence processing abilities
  • problems with gross and fine motor development, including bilateral coordination and upper limb speed and dexterity
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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