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.
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."
For many homeowners, the most galling part about botched inspections is that HOH never told them about the flaws, even though they were discovered more than a year ago.
During last year's audit of HOH, the Texas Department of Health found problems with the lead inspection of the aging South Park home of Lara Lourdes, but she didn't hear about the findings until the Press contacted her last month.
Lourdes, who lives with her four children, one just ten months old, was shocked.
"I don't know if there is anything that can be done to come and inspect," she said, her voice trembling, "but if any of my kids have gotten sick, that would be [HOH's] fault."
Redden said it's not her obligation to contact homeowners such as Lourdes. And new inspections are not mandated by state law.
"That's a HUD requirement," she said, "so that would be who you need to talk to."
Randel said she was unsure about HOH's response to the state findings, and referred inquiries to another employee, who never returned calls.
HOH is a subcontractor for the Houston Housing and Community Development Department, which must ensure HOH meets city and HUD requirements.
Department spokesperson Kevin Davis said he knew of the 2003 audit, but nobody at HCDD had seen the results. Referring to the past two years, he said the department had no knowledge of any faulty lead paint reports.
"Should HCDD be made aware of a deficient report, our subcontractor as well as the city will notify the state licensing board as well as the home buyer," Davis said in a written statement.
That position was reversed a few days later, when the city said that the state had not authoritzed it or HOH to disclose the findings to homeowners or to the public.
Davis sidestepped the issue of whether new inspections would be required, saying in a written statement only that "the hazard would have to be abated."
Some critics of the city's HUD programs argue the lead inspection system was set up to fail.
Realtors and loan officers wait until the last minute to tell home buyers that lead inspections are required, critics say, then they provide them with a list of inspectors who are considered to have low standards.
Because if lead is discovered, it could scuttle the sale.
"If you get a reputation of stopping their deals, you don't get called back," said Tom Bazan, a local lead inspector who has complained about the system for years. "So most of these guys have a reputation of being reliable, helping them to do their deals and then covering their ass."
Ferris said the inspection for lead was the last one performed of her home before the deal closed. Her husband, Richard, ultimately decided to hire Bipin J. Patel, owner of H&M services. He charged $175, about half as much as some other inspection services.
Based on the Press investigation, auditors found Patel inspected the Ferris home and 21 others even though he did not have a valid state permit. He was fined $2,000.
Additionally, Patel was issued a warning letter for "failure to prepare a complete inspection report" on the 22 homes. His reports lacked required data obtained with an XRF machine, which tests for lead in paint.
He also omitted the construction dates of the homes, which would help indicate how much lead they might contain. By the end of the 1950s, lead had been cut from half of a paint's weight to less than 10 percent.
The Ferris home was built in 1950, before these reductions occurred.
The Texas Department of Health didn't fine Patel for the incomplete inspections. He had received a $100 fine for the same problems with a report submitted earlier, Redden said, and additional fines would have been redundant.
Overall, Patel was issued more than twice as many violations as any other inspector examined in the Press investigation.
He could not be reached for comment.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 2 percent of U.S. children between the ages of one and five suffer from lead poisoning. Ralph Scott, community projects director for the Alliance for Healthy Homes in Washington, D.C., said lead poisoning rates have dropped by roughly half in the past eight years, thanks to efforts to reduce lead in gasoline, drinking water and high-risk housing.
There are no state or federal laws requiring lead inspections before private home purchases. But if a homeowner or landlord knows of lead hazards, he must inform the buyer or tenant.
The more stringent HUD lead inspection requirements are raising awareness about lead hazards, Scott said. They help train qualified lead inspectors and educate contractors about how to remove lead in homes.
Scott said the government has a duty to make sure the inspections are performed properly.
"The federal government should be setting an example for lead safety," he said. "It's morally wrong for the government, which is in the housing business, to actually be harming people with their program."
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