Does Massachusetts’ Lead Paint Law Discriminate Against Families with Children?

The Massachusetts Fair Housing Center (MFHC) and two families with children recently filed a complaint to stop state officials from enforcing what they say are the discriminatory provisions of the Massachusetts Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention and Control Act (Lead Law) and to replace them with a nondiscriminatory policy that will fulfill the original goal of the Lead Law: to prevent childhood lead poisoning through an effective program of progressive deleading.

MFHC alleges that the Lead Law violates federal fair housing law by requiring property owners to engage in lead abatement only when a child under 6 resides in the dwelling. MFHC says that many property owners refuse to rent to families with children under the age of 6 rather than incur the cost of lead abatement. As a result, MFHC says, families with children under age 6 experience high rates of discrimination, displacement, homelessness, housing instability, and extended housing search times. When they can’t find lead-safe housing, families may be compelled to accept a rental that exposes their young children to the irreparable harm of childhood lead poisoning.

“For the past five decades, the Massachusetts Lead Law has incentivized landlords to discriminate against families with children, rather than abate the lead paint in their units, leaving young children at risk in 1.8 million dwellings,” MFHC Executive Director, Meris Bergquist, said in a statement.

According to the MFHC, state officials acknowledge that the current law, which imposes deleading obligations on a landlord only if a child under age 6 will live there, has failed to prevent childhood lead poisoning. MFHC points to reports by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, which show that since 1971 only 10 percent of all pre-1978 housing stock has been confirmed as free from lead hazards. According to the MFHC, the defendants admit that the potential of exposure to lead paint in 1.8 million housing units is “a significant health risk for children across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

The MFHC says that other jurisdictions have developed nondiscriminatory policies to reduce lead poisoning, including the state of Maryland and the cities of Philadelphia, Rochester, and Cleveland. In September 2019, the Philadelphia City Council voted to amend their Lead Law, which similarly required landlords to engage in lead abatement activities only when a family with a child under age 7 resided in the unit, after officials concluded that the old policy was ineffective and resulted in discrimination against these families. The new law requires all landlords of pre-1978 rental units to abate the lead paint, starting in ZIP codes with the highest rates of lead poisoning.