Boy’s lead poisoning pushes grandmother to assert tenant rights

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – The news was bad. Janel Nicholas’ toddler grandson was tested in June with an elevated blood lead level of 35 micrograms per deciliter.

Since that day, she’s found herself in a struggle to establish a lead-safe environment, taking what may be a new legal path for other families to get landlords to remove lead hazards in rental properties.

The Wilkinsburg boy, 3, is one of hundreds of children found with lead in their blood since universal blood lead screening began in Allegheny County in 2018. Interventions are recommended for children with levels of 5 and above. Risks are considered higher in homes built before 1978, when lead-based paint was banned, and among young children with frequent hand-to-mouth behavior.

Ms. Nicholas, 40, said her grandson’s blood lead levels had been in the single digits previously — 6 micrograms per deciliter in December 2018. But after moving with his grandmother, mother, uncle, aunt and baby sister to a rented house on Swissvale Avenue in February, he tested at 35 micrograms.

Health experts say because damage done to a small child’s neurological development from exposure to lead can be irreversible, preventing the exposure in the first place is critical.

After the June test, the boy’s pediatrician notified the Allegheny County Health Department so a home inspection could be done. Inspections are free when a child under the age of 6 tests positive for a confirmed lead exposure at 5 micrograms or above.

Tenant’s complaints

The property at 454 Swissvale Ave. is owned by Jarred Goldman; Rick Goldman managed the property for his son. Ms. Nicholas said she had already had various complaints about needed cleaning and repairs because of the condition of the house when she moved in.

“It was dirty in general. The infestation of mice is what burned me up,” Ms. Nicholas said in an interview this fall in her attorneys’ office.

She said she needed the new housing immediately; a $2,400 deposit had already been made and the lease signed — with rent set at $800 a month. The landlord replaced a leaking water tank and a window and made wall and ceiling repairs, she said.

The household was busy. Ms. Nicholas said she was up at 3:30 a.m. to get to work by 5. Her daughter was working evenings. The kids went to daycare by 10 a.m. and her youngest daughter had to be at school by noon.

On July 23, the inspection was done.

Ms. Nicholas said, “[The inspector] told me my house was filled with lead. And he would contact me on what needed to be done.”

Her grandson’s blood lead levels continued to test high (25 micrograms on July 16 and Aug. 14).

“I told the landlord. I was angry.”

Lead found everywhere

On Aug. 12 the family got the results of the home inspection. A copy was sent to Jarred Goldman, including a notice that state law requires that a lead certified contractor must do lead hazard reduction work — a requirement later contested by the Goldmans.

The inspection report said both the interior and exterior of the rental property were evaluated with X-ray fluorescence technology. Dust, soil and water samples were taken.

Inside areas that tested positive for lead included doors, door trim, door jambs, baseboards, doors, window sills, window trim, walls and sashes. Exterior areas with lead included door trim, door jamb, porch box, window wells, coal door, window sashes and all parts of the cellar windows.

The Allegheny County Health Department did 105 similar investigations in 2018 and 131 as of Dec. 20, according to department spokesman Ryan Scarpino.

In the report on the Swissvale Avenue property prepared by Lawrence Robinson, lead risk assessor, the summary says, “Some of the leaded components found at this property are readily accessible to children. The windows are chipping badly, the exterior is chipping badly also.”

Ms. Nicholas had moved her family out after the inspector alerted her to the problem — going to hotels for about three weeks starting July 26. Most of the time, her son and her younger daughter found places to stay elsewhere.

At first the two women and two youngsters stayed in Monroeville, but Ms. Nicholas had difficulty getting transportation to her job as a dietary aide at West Penn Hospital.

They moved to a hotel in Harmar. Ms. Nicholas left a message with the landlord, saying she expected him to reimburse her for the hotel bills.

Seeking legal help

When the Goldmans didn’t start repairs in August, Ms. NIcholas contacted Neighborhood Legal Services, with Meghan Tighe assigned to be her attorney. The legal service regularly defends tenants in eviction proceedings.

Ms. Tighe teamed up with the Community Justice Project, where attorneys Megan Lovett and Daniel Vitek now represent Ms. Nicholas. CJP also has experience representing lower-income renters by pursuing litigation in housing cases.

Ms. Lovett said her group is concerned about lead poisoning from deteriorated property conditions. It’s a participant in the “Get the Lead Out, Pittsburgh” campaign to raise awareness of the issue.

The two Community Justice Project attorneys said they believe this is the first case in the county using the “implied warranty of habitability” law to pursue lead hazard complaints since screening was mandated in 2018.

Ms. Lovett said she found the law applied in a Philadelphia tenant’s case: “We’re coming at it from a novel angle. Not many people have a health department report.” Mr. Vitek was the senior housing attorney at Neighborhood Legal Services for 10 years before he joined the Community Justice Project.

The habitability law says landlords who rent residential property must make sure such property is “safe, sanitary and fit for human habitation.” The warranty exists without being in writing and even if the lease tries to make tenants responsible for repairs, Ms. Lovett said.

On Sept. 6, Ms. Nicholas lawyers filed a complaint against the Goldmans in civil court. Seven days later, Common Pleas Court Judge Alan Hertzberg issued an injunction ordering the landlord to abate lead hazards and provide safe housing until the work is completed.

Many renters don’t know they have a right to a habitable home or understand the severe risk of lead poisoning in young children, said Ms. Lovett. Fear of eviction can keep tenants from going to court, she added.

Ms. Nicholas said she knows many people don’t have the resources to challenge their landlord and she spent her savings for the hotel stays.

The Goldmans’ attorney, John K. Foster III, filed a response to the complaint a day before the injunction was scheduled to go into effect, saying the house had been painted before the family moved in and the lead hazards were not the landlord’s fault.

In addition, it said Ms. Nicholas should not be living there because she owed rent and the grandchildren shouldn’t be living there because they weren’t listed as tenants.

Several unsuccessful attempts were made to reach the Goldmans by phone. Mr. Foster provided information about the sequence of events and copies of their legal arguments in the case.

The judge weighs in

After the landlord contested the Sept. 13 injunction, the judge on Sept. 20 upheld his ruling and gave warning that there could be a $1,000 a day penalty if his orders weren’t followed.

On Sept. 25, the judge removed Rick Goldman from the injunction order due to his bankruptcy, but ordered his son to use the lead certified contractor for the window repairs.

After the judge’s second order, the Goldmans arranged and paid for the hotel stays. Ms. Lovett said at first the landlords made reservations a few days at a time, as they sought a reversal of the order.

Between Sept. 20 and Oct. 12, stays in five different hotel rooms were paid for, according to Ms. Lovett. The final two weeks each were weeklong hotel stays, before the landlords cut off funding, the attorney said. Because he stopped paying before the abatement work was complete and the repairs were not done according to the order, on Oct. 21 Jarred Goldman was found in contempt and told to pay $1,000 to Ms. Nicholas.

In a letter also dated Oct. 21, the health department gave the landlord the all-clear: A reinspection found that lead hazards were either fully abated or reduced according to county requirements.

Code enforcement

In addition to the case in civil court, Jarred Goldman has no occupancy permit from Wilkinsburg for the property at 454 Swissvale Ave., according to borough code enforcement director Eric Parrish.

Mr. Parrish said there is a record of the tenant contacting the code office, complaining of lead paint hazards and other issues.

“We have sent him notice for this year [involving] property maintenance of the exterior and not having an occupancy permit for the tenant there this year,” Mr. Parrish said. He said on Dec. 19 the borough has filed citations with Wilkinsburg District Judge Kim Hoots against Jarred Goldman for multiple properties, including the Swissvale Avenue house.

Out of more than 7,200 parcels in the borough, about 2,800 have confirmed rental units, Mr. Parrish said. He estimated his department gives out 300-500 citations a year, aiming to protect the health, safety and welfare of tenants by enforcing property maintenance.

Lead-paint hazards are part of the problem, he said.

“We just received another complaint from someone who wants to be anonymous because they’re scared the landlord will kick them out.”

Epilogue

The legal conflict continues. According to her lawyers, Ms. Nicholas is appealing a ruling issued Dec. 10 by District Judge Hoots after a hearing on an eviction notice and complaint from the Goldmans.

The landlords had asked for $12,000 ($5,950 in unpaid rent and late fees, plus damages).

The judge ordered Ms. Nicholas and her mother, a lease co-signer, to pay $3,966.55 for unpaid rent plus court costs.

As long as Ms. Nicholas puts her rent into escrow, she will be able to stay in the house, pending the outcome of the appeal and until her lease expires at the end of February, Ms. Lovett said.

Ms. Nicholas’ grandson’s next planned blood test is in February. He seemed oblivious to visitors in the house one recent morning, checking in with his grandmother often and carefully carrying a packet of fruit snacks under the watchful eye of the family dog.

“Honestly, the full impact of the lead poisoning on him likely won’t be known for some time,” Ms. Lovett said, “as he grows and develops.”

If a child’s confirmed blood lead level is at or above 5 micrograms per deciliter: ACHD’s Housing and Community Environment Program will contact the family to offer a free voluntary lead-based paint investigation. Contact the program at 412-350-4046.

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