R.I. High Court Upholds Lead Paint Law Exempting Small Landlords

December 13, 2007

Rhode Island’s highest court has upheld a state law that requires landlords to correct lead paint problems at their properties, rejecting a constitutional challenge brought because the law exempts small, owner-occupied buildings.

The Lead Hazard Mitigation Act, which took effect in November 2005, was intended to protect tenants — especially children — from lead poisoning. It requires owners of buildings built before 1978, when the toxic paint was banned from homes in the United States, to attend lead awareness seminars, have their properties inspected and correct any hazards they find.

The statute exempts owner-occupied buildings with three or fewer rental units. The state Supreme Court, in a 4-0 opinion upholding the exemption, said it was logical to assume that landlords who live in their own buildings would be more diligent in fixing lead paint dangers.

The justices also said state lawmakers could have reasonably concluded that lead poisoning was more likely to occur at larger properties, which require more maintenance and house more tenants.

The justices acknowledged the law would not solve the state’s childhood lead poisoning problem “with one sweep of the legislative pen.

“But we are persuaded that the General Assembly believed that targeting the areas where poisonings are most prevalent is one step toward achieving that end,” Chief Justice Frank Williams wrote in the court’s opinion.

Liz Colon, director of training and outreach for the Childhood Lead Action Project, a Rhode Island advocacy organization that helped craft the lead paint law, said she had been optimistic the law would ultimately be upheld.

“We’re definitely pleased and we can continue to move forward as planned,” Colon said.

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