Get the Lead Out: New state laws, rental registry, on track to surprise multi-family homeowners

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Standing before a packed house at Good Working from left are Lead Inspector John Barr, Realtor June Mullen, and Attorneys George Lough and Arthur Russo.

NORTH SMITHFIELD – In the final days of the Rhode Island General Assembly’s 2023 legislative session last June, amendments to three laws were passed that will change the way the state regulates multifamily properties. Adjustments to lead paint laws, in particular, are now on track to surprise many landlords who may not be aware of the regulations – and could well face hardship as a result.

“Nobody knows about this,” said Lead Inspector John Barr. “It goes into effect in months.”

Barr joined local attorneys and realtors this week at a free forum at North Smithfield-based shared workspace Good Working on Smithfield Avenue to educate locals about the changes, coming this September, and what they can do to get ahead of the potential troubles.

A landlord himself and licensed lead inspector since 2001, Barr, who runs Lincoln-based Lead Safe Inspectors with wife Sharon Barr, laid out the history.

Historically, “Rhode Island was the lead paint capital of the country,” Barr said. “We had the highest level of lead poisoning.”

The problem, in part, is due to the state’s housing stock: an estimated 80 percent of Rhode Island homes were built before 1978, when the federal government banned consumer uses of lead-based paint. In fact, before the Environmental Protection Agency passed the Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act in 1992, Barr said 30 percent of Rhode Islanders showed lead levels beyond the standard of 25 micrograms per deciliter.

And that percentage would have been far greater by the CDC’s current standard of 3.5 micrograms.

Rhode Island passed the Lead Hazard Mitigation Act in 2002, and implemented regulations in 2004 that require property owners to attend training on unsafe lead conditions and inspect/repair any lead hazards at their properties. Owners are expected to have their properties inspected every two years and prove the units are safe for children by showing a Certificate of Conformance or a Lead-Safe or Lead-Free Certificate.

Owner-occupied two and three family homes, previously exempt from the law, became subject to the provisions as of Jan. 1, 2023.

Advocates point to the importance of such regulations to protect renters – and young children in particular. Children can get lead poisoning by breathing dust that contains lead or eating flaking paint chips – with serious consequences including brain and nervous system damage, slowed growth and development, and learning and behavioral problems.

But enforcement in the state has been a challenge. Barr noted that the Renovation, Repair and Painting Program is 18 pages long – but provides no statewide enforcement mechanism.

“You’re supposed to have a lead certificate,” said Attorney Arthur Russo of multi-family homeowners. “90 percent don’t have this certificate.”

That’s all on track to change in 2024.

Following last year’s changes to the Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, as of September 1, all landlords must register rental units with the Rhode Island Department of Health, and for properties constructed prior to 1978, provide a certificate of conformance with the lead law. Those who don’t comply will be subject to a civil fine of $50 per month for failure to register the rental – or $125 per month for failure to provide a lead certificate.

And homeowners not in compliance with the new law will be unable to evict a tenant for non-payment of rent.

“They don’t have to pay rent and you can’t evict them until you come into compliance,” said Barr.

“You’re going to need that certificate before the clerk will even accept that complaint,” said Russo of future evictions. “This is going to be very difficult. It’s going to be the mom and pops – they’re going to get whacked with this.” 

Companies such as Barr’s can provide the certificates for homes built before 1978 if properties have no deteriorated paint, or paint that is chipping, peeling or chalking. They look at surfaces that create dust from friction including old wood windows, binding doors and stair treads, taking dust samples.

Barr said the average inspection costs $150 per unit and the certificate is good for two years, or until a change of tenancy. Those who buy a multi-family building will have 30 days to get into compliance starting in October.

Attorney George Lough said he believes that once people hear about the changes, there will be a rush on good lead inspectors.

“Now is the perfect time to get that lead certificate done,” said Lough. “That eviction can’t even be filed until they have that certificate. The best defense is a good offense in getting this done right now.”

“All of your lead certificates have to be in place by September,” said Barr.  

Help to comply with the law may be available for some homeowners through Rhode Island Housing, or in the form of tax credits.

Complete text of the changes passed last June can be found here, here and here.

The forum, held on Thursday, Jan. 12, was organized by Gold Door Realty agents Amanda Loux and June Mullen, and included a question and answer session with presenters. Due to high demand, a second event has been scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 10 at Good Working at 585 Smithfield Ave. Those who plan to attend are asked to RSVP to Mullen at june@golddoorrealty.com.  

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