City Sued Over Lead-Poisoned Child

Christopher Peak PhotoMore than two months after the Health Department was notified about a lead-poisoned child in an Amity apartment, chipped paint is still flaking outside the two-story building —  an ongoing health hazard that has prompted legal aid lawyers to drag the city to court.

New Haven Legal Assistance Association filed the lawsuit in state Housing Court on Monday claiming that the city violated both state law and local ordinances in its response to off-the-charts lead levels in the blood of Jacob Guaman.

The suit alleges that after the 2-year-old’s blood first tested over the legal limit in 2015, the city conducted a perfunctory inspection, let the landlord off without submitting an abatement plan and didn’t properly reinspect the premises. That response has left Jacob “suffering irreparable harm,” including still-elevated lead levels known to cause neurological damage, the complaint argues.

The suit asks a judge to grant injunctive relief, forcing the city to remove the child from the apartment at 1321 Whalley Ave. and fix up the lead-paint directly.

In addition to the city government, the suit names two employees as defendants: the Health Department’s director, Byron Kennedy, and head of environmental health, Paul Kowalski.

“The city needs to immediately begin removing the lead from the apartment,” said Amy Marx, a staff attorney who’s handling the case. “We need the city to protect the health of this child.”

NHLAA is also pursuing more information about the city’s health department inspection in general, arguing that this case reflects a broader problem of a lack of enforcement. “It’s our hope and expectation that we do not need to devote the resources of a class-action suit to get attention to this issue,” Marx said. She and other NHLAA lawyers filed the original complaints that led to the resettlement of families from the Church Street South apartment complex, plans to demolish and rebuild the property, and a class-action suit filed by another attorney.

“If necessary, we will take any legal action required to make sure the Health Department meets the requirements of state law,” she said of this latest case.

“With regard to this matter, it is the policy and practice of the City of New Haven to withhold comment on pending litigation,” said city mayoral spokesman Laurence Grotheer.

After dangerously high levels of lead were detected in Jacob Guaman’s blood in a May 2015 test — 36 micrograms per deciliter, about seven times above the threshold for alarm — the Health Department dust-wiped the apartment’s interior to try to identify the source of the lead paint. The department also sent a letter notifying the landlord of the issue, which was largely copied from a 2008 investigation of the property.

This response “followed none of the standard lead poisoning prevention and control procedures,” the complaint says.

According to state law, any blood test with over 20 micrograms of lead per deciliter is supposed to trigger a response from the Health Department, requiring it to “order action to be taken … to prevent further exposure of persons to such poisoning,” the statute reads.

Regulations go on to set out a very specific protocol that must be followed, including assessing all lead-based surfaces, dust, drinking water and outside soil a using spectrophotometric test (usually with an x-ray fluorescent gun); ordering the correction of all defective surfaces with liquid encapsulation to prevent chipping or removal, not simply painting over; ensuring a lead abatement plan is submitted within 15 days of a violation and begun within 45 days; conducting a post-abatement inspection; and reporting the results to the state.

The city failed to follow those regulations, the lawsuit alleges. “The landlord neither submitted an abatement plan nor conducted any abatement. The Health Department imposed no fines nor criminal punishment for such landlord non-compliance with the January 2016 order.”

A spokeswoman for the Connecticut Department of Public Health said law prohibits her from providing information about the city’s compliance in this case. “Unfortunately, we can neither confirm nor deny that a report was submitted,” Maura Downes, director of communications, wrote in an email.

“To this day, we still do not know which parts of the apartment are causing this severe lead poisoning,” attorney Marx said.

New Haven’s ordinances are even stricter, requiring the Health Department to respond when blood has just five micrograms of lead per deciliter. Repairs must also start sooner — within just seven days — and if they don’t happen, the Health Department director can take over the abatement and impose a lien on the property to recoup costs.

This August, Jacob Guaman’s blood levels remained elevated at 17 micrograms per deciliter. Marx wrote a demand letter to the Health Department and the Livable City Initiative, detailing the tenants’ complaints about “urgent fire, health, and safety concerns” and asking for a chance to discuss the city’s “pattern of failure” monitoring code violations.

Marx said she never got the sit-down she requested, and the city hasn’t indicated a willingness to fix the apartment within the timeline required by law. Out of other options, legal aid filed the lawsuit “to call attention to the fact that the city’s present procedures are totally inadequate to protect children’s health,” Marx explained.

Since then, Jong Hee Heo, the landlord, has personally painted new coats on top of the chipped paint on windowsills and interior walls. Heo said he’d been overcharged by contractors in the past, so he decided to get certified in lead-safe renovations himself. (The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency confirmed Heo took a course on Sept. 13.) He said he’s also readying an application for a loan to redo the exterior, but he hasn’t submitted anything yet.

Heo tried to settle the case out of court several times. In one conversation, he offered to buy the Guamans out. To settle the case, he’d give them a few month’s rent free, plus the costs of moving to another apartment. He’d even throw in a larger space at the nail salon where Gloria Montero, the child’s mother, leases a spot from him.

Another time, right after the lawsuit was filed, he called up and said, “What do you want? Do you want money?”

“You have to call my lawyer,” Montero told him.

“No, how much do you want?” Heo pressed. He said later that he was just trying to assess the potential cost of the suit.

On Tuesday afternoon, Heo said that the dispute has been a “big headache.”

“I follow the rules and requirements. I got insurance, and I follow New Haven City,” he said. “I’m worried. I don’t have enough money. It looks like [I have] a lot of money, but I’ve got a lot of loans. I have to pay to taxes and banks.” He added, “I don’t want to give them money because I don’t think I was wrong.”

Montero said she had a word of advice for other parents in the Elm City: “They have to fight, because the city doesn’t care,” she said in her living room, as her boys bounced around the couch. “We had problems; we called them in. But they don’t care what happens with the kids.”

The first court hearing is scheduled to take place on Nov. 7.

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posted by: Dwightstreeter on October 31, 2017  4:53pm

How much proof do we need that the City’s enforcement of housing codes is a failure?
  Flint, Michigan is one kind of horror.
  A child with neurological damage from lead paint is another.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on October 31, 2017  6:44pm

Lead paint is a problem from Hell. If exposure standards are not aggressively enforced, innocent children will suffer significant neurological harm. If they are, a substantial part of the city’s housing stock will be removed from the market, displacing thousands of families.

posted by: 1644 on October 31, 2017  7:52pm

What of the tenants, who knowingly exposed their children to lead for years?  Wouldn’t responsible parents move?  Kevin is correct: the level of abatement Legal Aid wants is economically absurd for properties like this one.  The most far exceeds the value of the building.  The result of Legal Aid’s action will be the removal of thousands of affordable housing units from the market, and yet more blighted neighborhoods like Newhallville with decaying, abandoned buildings and empty lots filled with trash.  An alternative would be allowing landlords with older buildings to rent only to adults, who are less likely to eat the paint, less likely to wear away newer paint, and less susceptible to nerve damage.

posted by: Realmom21 on October 31, 2017  8:06pm

This is NONSENSE..where is the families responsibility. They simply dont want to leave cheep rent and a certain neighborhood so now its everyone else fault and everyone else should foot the bill. Hell no landlord asked them to leave refused to renew lease! Hell he even offered them a month free rent and to pay their moving cost.The city should just condemn the house but on a real note at this point the parents have willingly continued to endanger their child so dcf should go and take all of the children. I guarantee you the parents would find a new apartment real quick if that was the only way they could get their children back..Oh wait they had another child since they moved into this house I guess we know what their priorities are.  This is a scam..Please people see them for who and what they are.People who dont want to pay the cost of having children and making sacrifices for their betterment. I feel so bad for the landlord!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!government corruption courts raping landlords all becseu someone took it upon themselves to keep procreating and not in the position to support theirs!!!!!!!!

posted by: Wilmeyer99 on October 31, 2017  9:11pm

To Realmom21 good to see at least one more person with common sense. Not too many think like this in New Haven

posted by: TheMadcap on October 31, 2017  11:19pm

“!!government corruption courts raping landlords”

Maybe they just shouldnt poison their tenants. How about that?

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on November 1, 2017  7:07am

posted by: Realmom21 on October 31, 2017 8:06pm

This is NONSENSE..where is the families responsibility. They simply dont want to leave cheep rent and a certain neighborhood so now its everyone else fault and everyone else should foot the bill.

Blame the victim.The problem is that New Haven has highest rate of childhood lead poisoning in Connecticut.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has launched a campaign in the New Haven area to address an old problem that is still around: lead paint in housing.
Why New Haven? Like most of New England, New Haven’s housing stock is old; 70-80 percent of our houses were built before 1978. (Lead paint was banned from housing in 1978.) That means that 70-80 percent of our houses may contain lead paint.
The New Haven area has the highest rate of lead poisoning among young children in Connecticut. And we know where much of that exposure comes from: old lead paint.

Remember Church Street South apartments

Inspectors uncover code violations at New Haven’s Church Street South apartments

Hell no landlord asked them to leave refused to renew lease! Hell he even offered them a month free rent and to pay their moving cost.

That is what he says.I bet he wants them out so he can then fix it up and then jack up the rent.In fact look at how these Greedy landlords drive people out so they can jack up the rent.

Part One.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on November 1, 2017  7:23am

Tenants Living Amid Rubble in Rent-Regulated Apartment War

The letter from the landlord said he needed access to the apartments for a couple of weeks to make repairs.The worker who showed up the next morning was armed with a sledgehammer and an electric saw, the tenants said, and took just hours to destroy the kitchens and the bathrooms. When the worker was done, the tenants in 1L could see the building’s basement through the remnants of their kitchen floor.Eight months later, the kitchens and bathrooms in Apartments 1L and 1R, two rent-stabilized units on the ground floor of a six-unit building in Bushwick, Brooklyn, are still a gutted mess of exposed beams and debris. And the tenants and the landlord are locked in a standoff that underscores the anxiety coursing through changing neighborhoods, where many landlords are trying to capitalize on New York City’s robust real estate market while many lower-income tenants wonder how long they will be able to hold on to their homes.

Slum landlord could go to jail in tenant fight

Forcing tenants to live in squalor can sock a landlord with hefty fines, but in this case it could send the owner to jail.Tenants of 1585 E. 172nd St. in Soundview went to court more than a year ago over collapsing floors and leaking, crumbling ceilings, black mold and rat infestations.

We need a list like this.

The Worst Landlords list.

posted by: JohnTulin on November 1, 2017  10:12am

Exposure to lead-tainted water causes long-term health impacts. Lead exposure lowers IQ levels, creating cognitive and behavioral issues for children in the future. Lead exposure is difficult to treat because it is an irreversible neurotoxin.  (From NPR, this morning, on Flint)

posted by: 1644 on November 1, 2017  10:58am

The appraised value of this building on the tax roll is is $126K.  The landlord has already spent $24K on lead abatement.  No doubt, legal aid would protest that any attempt to evict for lapse of time or to raise the rent to cover abatement costs was retaliatory for making health complaint.  The end of public policies that make buildings economically unprofitable is what we saw in the Harlem and the Bronx in the 1960’s and 1970’s: mass abandonment and arson.  I don’t think Heo would do such a thing, but he might be forced to sell to someone who would.  It has happened in New Haven.

posted by: robn on November 1, 2017  11:02am

Why play chicken with a landlord and subject your own child to poisoning? Honestly, be real. Move out.

posted by: FairHavenRes on November 1, 2017  12:16pm

I’m missing something here; why hasn’t the landlord applied to the City’s lead abatement program?  I applied a few years ago for a two-family I rented out.  The Health Dept tested the property and then contractors bid on the lead abatement job.  The City picked the contractor, they did the work, and then the City put a 5-year lien on my property for the amount of the job.  If I still own the house in five years, the lien is erased.  It was a simple process and now my rental property is certified lead-safe.  Why hasn’t this landlord taken advantage of this?

posted by: Mr. Momiro on November 1, 2017  12:21pm

It’s long past time for the City of New Haven to implement an online database of properties showing complaints (e.g., about lead or other conditions) and whether those conditions were ever resolved by the City. Other cities have this.

Kevin McCarthy and 1644:

The messages in your statements are sad and disturbing but ultimately, they reflect the view that so many in our society share about the poor and disadvantaged: they (and their children) ought to endure substandard, even deadly poisonous environments, because to hold landlords (and the municipality charged with enforcing the housing code) to a higher standard, would simply be too costly. It’s all about the money; it’s ALWAYS about the money.

Did you consider (or are you simply ignorant of) the fact that poor folks like the family described in the article, often have few if any real choices in where they live? And that they rely (to their detriment, it appears) on the government to enforce minimum standards of safety. If we cannot at least protect CHILDREN from lead poisoning, then we have failed.

posted by: Dwightstreeter on November 1, 2017  12:35pm

@ Mr. Momiro: A registry of violations is a good idea.
  Removing lead paint is expensive and laws re: lead abatement are a bit of a gift to the lead removal industry.
  I say this because the majority of lead poisoning years ago was the lead in gasoline and cities open-air burning of trash.
  In Boston, what is now UMass and the Kennedy Library in Dorchester were once the scene of such ongoing fires.
  Lead can be encapsulated by a good paint job, a less expensive option than lead removal. We need to balance the need to prevent lead poisoning with preserving old housing stock. Only government builds for the working class and the needy.
  Section 8 subsidies can be profitable, but without reliable inspections and government action, investor owners will merely collect the rent and abandon the buildings once the cost of restoring them is too high.
  LCI has too many responsibilities and is not performing as needed.
  Bring back the Building Dept. inspectors and limit their work to inspecting and moving against violations.

posted by: 1644 on November 1, 2017  1:55pm

Mr M.  Yes, it is about the money.  Private persons rarely become landlords for altruistic reasons:  they invest in rental property in the hope of making a profit.  As with any product, increasing the costs of providing that product will lead to less product and higher prices.  As it is now,  we have tremendous economic waste as thousands of properties throughout the state which could be occupied lie vacant because owners are afraid of tenants such as these.  While this property is obviously unsuitable for “rambunctious” children with persistent hand to mouth behaviors.  it might be fine (at least with minor remediation)  for calmly, older tenants such as those from the Duncan Hotel.  Unfortunately, due the the actions of Legal Assistance and the laws on our books, it will likely be withdrawn from the market. 
  Robn: In chicken, there is a chance of avoiding harm if the other side deviates.  Here, if we believe the parents’ allegations about how harmful the lead is, they are knowingly and willingly harming their children for the sake of a cheap rent, a parking place for the father’s truck, and proximity to the mother’s workplace. It like Munchausen syndrome.  These parents have had years to find another place, offers of financial help to do so, yet they not only remained here but had another third child.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on November 1, 2017  10:12pm

Mr. Momiro, lead is ubiquitous in New Haven and the inner ring suburbs.Unless the state or federal government were to dramatically increase funding for making housing lead safe, aggressively enforcing the existing lead standards will take thousands of units off the market. There is a strong moral argument for such funding - the kids are innocent victims and in many cases their parents can’t eliminate their exposure. But if you believe such funding is going to happen in the foreseeable future, you live in a different state than I live in.

posted by: 1644 on November 2, 2017  6:53pm

FairHavenRes:  I know the city has, or had a program, Renew Haven, which had up to $40K in forgivable loans for code compliance and other issues, but it was limited to owner-occupied structures.  There are other loan programs for something like $7-$9K, but I don’t think they are forgivable.  In this case, the owner may already have availed himself of one of these programs, as he spent $24K on lead abatement already.  That solved the problem for a while, but the abatement did not stand the test of time and “rambunctious” kids.  My guess is it would take at least $200K to remediate to the standards Legal Assistance wants, essentially a gut renovation, re-siding, and soil removal.  Simply, encapsulating the lead paint won’t work when residents wear and tear at the protective coat.

posted by: Doppleganger on November 4, 2017  4:00pm

Greedy, greedy, greedy.  If the lead is on the outside of the building, please explain how a two-year old could be outside unattended and allowed to eat lead paint chips.  Ms. Marks is looking for money to feather her retirement future.

These frivolous lawsuits, during a time of economic uncertainty (no State budget), deplete the resources of the City of New Haven.  To much litigation.  More high taxes.

The family should work with the landlord for a solution.  Stop trying to bleed New Haven dry.

Greedy, greedy, greedy.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on November 5, 2017  9:32pm

Doppleganger, kids are exposed to lead in several ways. Parents can, to some extent, prevent their kids from eating paint chips. But as JohnTulin and Dwighstreeter note, kids are often exposed to lead in water and soil. There is little to nothing that parents to prevent such exposure.