Lead Astray

Inspectors are fined after the Press uncovers faulty reports on low-income housing

Two years ago, Debra Ferris was renting a crumbling apartment, where she said rats gnawed her peeling walls, a rising bayou invaded her living room and the upstairs neighbors fought and smoked crack.

Desperate to get out, she contacted Housing Opportunities of Houston to connect her with a loan to help the working poor buy houses of their own. But first she had to pay for an inspection to make sure the house she wanted was free of dangerous lead-based paint. The private, nonprofit agency approved the inspection, and Ferris and her family moved into a quaint wood-shingle bungalow.

Ferris thought that was the end of the story. But a Houston Press investigation has uncovered major flaws in lead-based paint inspections performed on Ferris's home and dozens of others, leading to $9,000 in state fines assessed against inspectors. The results suggest widespread neglect by government regulators charged with ensuring the safety of thousands of subsidized houses.

A flawed lead inspection has Debra and Richard Ferris worried.
Daniel Kramer
A flawed lead inspection has Debra and Richard Ferris worried.

Ferris expressed alarm at the findings: "I don't want us to get sick up here and die over this mess."

Although rarely fatal in low doses, lead can trigger brain and kidney damage, elevated blood pressure and anemia. It is most dangerous to young children, impairing their ability to concentrate and learn.

Lead-based paint was banned in 1978 but remains on the walls of many older homes, where it can flake off and be eaten by toddlers, or be inhaled as dust.

Children in low-income families are eight times as likely to suffer lead poisoning than those in high-income households. Partly because of such disparities, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds Houston's low-income housing programs, requires HOH to inspect for lead before helping to purchase older houses.

The inspection law went into effect in the late 1990s and became a firm requirement by 2000. But HOH continues to provide little if any oversight. When asked if HOH examines lead inspection reports to ensure they comply with state and federal procedures, spokesperson Sarah Randel replied, "Oh, Lord, no."

As a result, HOH has accepted many reports that are flawed.

The Press reviewed all lead reports submitted by HOH to the City of Houston between October and December 2002, the most current data available. Those 60 reports were forwarded to the Texas Department of Health's Environmental Lead Program, which determined more than half of them violated state laws.

Auditors found many lead inspectors failed to register with the state, used unauthorized laboratories and submitted incomplete information. Three inspectors were fined and six received warning letters.

The reports examined by the Press were just a fraction of those submitted to HOH since lead inspections began. Although city and state agencies could not say how many lead inspections HOH has approved, hundreds are believed to have been performed, and many may be incomplete or inaccurate.

David Jacobs, director of HUD's Office of Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Control in Washington, D.C., said HUD-funded agencies are supposed to work with states to ensure lead inspections are performed properly.

Yet faced with inaction from HOH, government regulators have done little.

The state health department will review a lead report if a citizen files a complaint against an inspector. It also occasionally audits HOH. During the last audit, more than a year ago, the department viewed only 13 lead reports and found problems with 11 of them.

Janet Redden, the department's coordinator of compliance and enforcement, said practices at HOH have subsequently improved. For example, HOH has begun checking to make sure lead inspectors are certified with the state. Since last year's audit, they "have experienced a very cooperative attitude at HOH for improving the quality of reports that are submitted to their office," Redden said in a written statement.

But the HOH's Randel said such cooperation doesn't include scrutinizing details of the reports. She said HOH officials check only to see if state-certified inspectors report the presence of lead.

Apparently, HOH officials are unaware of even basic requirements for the reports. Randel insisted HOH requires a form of lead inspection known as a "lead hazard screen." But the state and HUD abandoned screens more than a year ago in favor of "lead risk assessments," which add requirements to test for lead in the soil around homes. Redden said she explained the difference to HOH officials last year.

Randel failed to clarify whether HOH or the home buyers pay for the inspections, a question that could determine the agency's liability for faulty reports.

Federal HUD officials said HOH doesn't cover the costs of the inspections, though HUD strongly encourages HOH to do so.

But Erin Marimon, a lender at Sterling Capital Mortgage, said HOH sometimes pays for the inspection if the inspectors agree to forgo payment until the house sells.

Ferris couldn't recall whether HOH reimbursed her for the cost of the lead inspection on her $45,000 home, but said HOH should help pay for a new one. She lost her job doing medical billing last year, and her house has peeling green paint on the outside and cracked walls in the living room, bedroom and kitchen. "I don't have no money to give nobody to inspect anything," she said. "Not until I find another job."

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