Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Lead Poisoning Of Young Children An Issue In Connection With Aging, Dilapidated Foreclosed Homes Being Bought & Peddled By Institutional Real Estate Operators Using Contract For Deed, Rent-To-Own Rackets; 'Hush Money' Clauses In $ettlements Keep Lawsuit-Filing Victims From Telling Media About Being Screwed Over

In Baltimore, Maryland, The New York Times reports:
  • A year after Tiffany Bennett moved into a two-story red brick house at 524 Loudon Avenue here, she received alarming news.

    Two children, both younger than 6, for whom Ms. Bennett was guardian, were found to have dangerous levels of lead in their blood. Lead paint throughout the nearly 100-year-old home had poisoned them.

    Who was responsible for the dangerous conditions in the home?

    Baltimore health officials say it was an out-of-state investment company that entered into a rent-to-own lease with the unemployed Ms. Bennett to take the home in 2014 “as is” — chipping, peeling lead paint and all.

    Ms. Bennett, 46, and the children moved out, but they should never have been in the house at all. City officials had declared the house “unfit for human habitation” in 2013.

    Throughout the country, tens of thousands of rundown homes have been scooped up by investment companies that have offered high-interest financing or rent-to-own deals largely to poor people. Many of these homes were foreclosed on during the housing crisis.

    These investors, however, often put no money toward renovation, or for fixing lead paint problems. The low-income buyers and renters are forced to make all repairs. When there are serious problems with the homes, victims can be required to sign confidentiality agreements to keep them quiet in a settlement after they have been compensated, as happened in Ms. Bennett’s case.

    As a result, seller-financed housing contracts have aggravated a persistent problem of lead poisoning among young children in this country.
    ***
    Ms. Bennett entered into a rent-to-own contract with Vision Property Management of Columbia, S.C., one of the biggest players in this fast-growing market.

    Vision failed to register the property with Baltimore housing officials after buying it in 2014 from Fannie Mae, the government-controlled mortgage finance firm. It then ignored the city’s previous building code violation, according to public records reviewed by The New York Times.

    The details of Ms. Bennett’s situation were pieced together through interviews with public officials, court records and documents provided through public records requests to various city and state agencies. Some of the documents were redacted to protect the privacy of the children.

    In many cases, families who had been affected by lead poisoning declined to comment when reached, citing concerns about reprisals.
    ***
    Poor families that buy or rent one of these rundown homes often find themselves with another problem: Because they do not technically own their house, they are ineligible for any state or local grants to help defray the cost of removing lead paint.
    ***
    In New York State, some grants provided to residents in rural communities to eliminate “critical health and safety threats” from homes, including lead paint, specifically exclude anyone buying a home with a contract for deed.

    A lead-safe program in Columbus, Ohio, is open only to property owners — again shutting out people buying homes through a contract for deed or a signing a rent-to-own lease.

    Katarina Karac, an assistant city attorney for Columbus, recently helped one woman who bought a home with a contract for deed get the seller to apply for a lead paint removal grant. Ms. Karac said the woman, who has three young children, had applied at least twice to the lead-safe program and was rejected because she did not legally own the home.

    “She was lucky enough the property owner was willing to work with her,” she said. “I can’t imagine someone in her position ordering a lead test, and if lead is found, asserting a claim against the owner.”

    In Michigan last month, a special lead-poisoning task force set up by the governor after the water crisis in Flint recommended a one-time lead inspection, the results of which property owners must disclose to buyers and renters. The proposal stipulated that the requirement could not be “waived in the event of a sale through land contract.”

    In Ms. Bennett’s case, Baltimore’s health department sued a limited liability company tied to Vision in December 2015 for failing to promptly comply with an order to eliminate the lead paint condition in the home.

    Many of Vision’s homes were bought cheaply from Fannie Mae and had been empty for years. Vision bought the house at 524 Loudon Avenue from Fannie for about $5,000.

    Ms. Bennett, who paid a monthly rent of $440, sued Vision after learning the children were poisoned by lead. She declined to talk about her situation, citing a confidentiality provision in the settlement of her lawsuit. She left the house in November 2015 as part of a settlement with Vision.

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