Like lots of working people of limited means, Juan Lopez could only dream of owning a home. Then, in the summer of 1996, he heard about Homes for Houston, an ambitious program initiated by former mayor Bob Lanier that aims to provide 25,000 new affordable-housing units by the year 2000.
Lopez visited a real estate agent, who referred him to Housing Opportunities of Houston, a nonprofit outfit that helps low-income people secure a $3,500 government-backed mortgage subsidy through Homes for Houston. Just a few months later, Juan, his second wife, Lucia, and the couple's three children moved into a two-bedroom home at 1325 Munger, just southeast of downtown.
"It was very easy," said Lopez, a nursery worker who spoke to the Press through an interpreter. "The only thing they were concerned about was making sure I was paying my child support."
Apparently, Housing Opportunities of Houston, or HOH, didn't extend that concern to the children Juan and Lucia Lopez are now raising at 1325 Munger. Last month, the Lopezes and 21 other families sued HOH for failing to disclose that the homes they purchased were contaminated with lead-based paint, a highly toxic substance that poisons thousands of children each year.
The lawsuit -- which also names the city of Houston and more than 40 banks and mortgage companies -- was filed in mid-February, after two state-certified lead inspectors spent several months testing the homes of HOH clients. One of those inspectors, Joe Isaac, says that the 22 plaintiffs represent only a fraction of the families who bought contaminated homes with the nonprofit agency's knowledge.
"Some people just didn't want to get involved," says Joe Isaac, whose company, Lead-Based Paint Detection Corporation, inspected more than 40 homes, most of which were found to contain levels of lead-based paint that exceed federal safety standards. "They were fearful of upsetting their real estate agent or doing something that might mean they'd lose their house."
According to Isaac, that fear is most intense among HOH's Hispanic clients. That's hardly surprising: Many of them are immigrants who speak English as a second language, if they speak it at all. They were likely unwilling to question HOH or challenge any part of the home-buying process lest they be denied the $3,500 mortgage subsidy. Moreover, lead-based paint, which has been linked to decreased intelligence and learning disabilities in American children, barely registers as a public-health issue in Mexico and Latin America.
Indeed, all but one of the 22 plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Hispanic -- a fact that suggests that HOH met little resistance while ignoring its own (and the city's) guidelines regarding the presence of lead-based paint.
"These people were taken advantage of, plain and simple," says Edward Q. Rainey, an attorney representing the plaintiffs. "It's not like HOH doesn't know about the dangers of lead."
The city's mortgage-assistance program works like this: Prospective homebuyers attend HOH seminars, where they are led through the complex process of taking out a mortgage and buying a house. If their credit is acceptable and they do not exceed federal income guidelines, they qualify for a $3,500 subsidy to help with the down payment or other closing costs, including a lead-based paint inspection if the home was built before 1979.
According to HOH's $350,000 contract with the city -- for which the agency is expected to dispense $3.5 million in mortgage assistance to 1,000 low-income homebuyers -- any property built before 1979 must undergo an x-ray fluorescence, or XRF, inspection before the buyer can receive the subsidy. That requirement is also mentioned in HOH's lenders' manual, a document that outlines the procedures to be followed by banks and mortgage companies that participate in the homebuyers assistance program.
Nonetheless, at some point, HOH quietly jettisoned the XRF inspection, which gives the most reliable reading of lead content in paint, and began allowing the use of a chemical swab test. That, despite rulings from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency that the swab method -- which is nothing more than a Baby Wipe sent to a lab for analysis -- is inaccurate and should not be used.
In late 1995, several local lead inspectors who were performing the XRF inspections for HOH began complaining that federal guidelines were being ignored. One inspector, who asked to remain anonymous, says the switch in inspection methods was motivated by greed.
"A lot of lenders and real estate agents don't encourage anything that might kill the deal," says the inspector. "And HUD will not guarantee a loan for a house with lead-contaminated paint."
Joe Isaac says the chemical swab test is unreliable because it only measures the lead content of the outer layer of the tested surface. That means a swab test on a surface that's received a fresh coat of lead-free paint will come up negative.
"In most of these older houses, the lead paint is under one or more layers of lead-free paint," Isaac says. "But any remodeling work that's done later will free up large amounts of lead-paint dust."
David Rosales, HOH's executive director, said he is confident his agency followed the federal guidelines on lead-based paint; he referred questions about the lawsuit to an attorney. The HOH attorney, Mike Durham, has yet to file a response to the plaintiffs' lawsuit, but says the lead tests being used by the agency are permitted under federal law.
That, however, is unclear. A HUD spokesperson acknowledges that a home bought with a government-subsidized mortgage must undergo a lead test, but says that a simple visual inspection will suffice.
But nowhere in the federal law, known as the Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act, is the word "visual" used. What the rule does say is this: "All applicable surfaces of HUD-associated housing constructed prior to 1978 shall be inspected to determine whether defective paint surfaces exist."
HUD says the rule is currently under review and will likely be changed next year. That's good, because until then, it's anyone's guess what it means. Certainly a defective paint surface, which is defined by HUD as "cracked, scaled, chipped, peeling or loose," can be detected visually. But HUD's definition of applicable surface includes "all intact surfaces," which implies the absence of damaged paint. An intact surface will require something more than a visual inspection to determine the presence of lead-based paint.
HUD regulations mandate the removal of any lead-based paint found during inspection -- an expensive task known as abatement, which is the responsibility of the buyer. If the buyer chooses not to perform an abatement -- and what homebuyer needing a $3,500 subsidy will want to spring for the $7,000 it costs to remove lead from a two-bedroom house -- HUD will not provide a mortgage subsidy.
So, one can see how Housing Opportunities of Houston might be tempted to flout the law and downplay the dangers of lead-based paint to prospective low-income homebuyers. Indeed, some homebuyers, perhaps those without young children, are no doubt grateful that the chemical swab method was used, saving them a decision about what to do about the lead-based paint in their homes.
But in the case of the Lopezes, they are fearful for their youngest child, an 11-month-old daughter. They refuse to allow her to crawl around outside 1325 Munger, because inspectors found lead above the safety threshold -- one milligram per centimeter squared of a tested surface -- on the garage door.
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The Lopezes were relatively lucky, however: Lead was found in just a few places in their home. Over at the Ramos family residence at 1034 West 30th Street in the Heights, lead-based paint contamination was found throughout the home, including levels six times above the federal safety standard in the bathroom.
According to Juan Lopez, lead-based paint was a subject that was never discussed with him at the HOH seminar he attended or in discussions with his bank. They did, however, point out one particular problem with the house at 1325 Munger.
"They told me there were termites," he says.
Contact Brian Wallstin at Brian_Wallstin@houstonpress.com.