Third R.I. landlord sued as AG Neronha pursues lead-paint violators

By   –  Reporter, Providence Business Journal

Two local landlords and a real estate investment trust allegedly ignored repeated orders to clean up lead paint at their rental properties in Providence and Cranston — despite the fact that children living in the homes had tested positive for elevated blood lead levels.

A lawsuit filed Friday by Attorney General Peter Neronha and the Rhode Island Department of Health names Robert N. Riccardi, who owns a three-family at 51 Wealth Ave. in Providence through Regent Place LLC. The suit alleges that Riccardi violated a state law designed to protect tenants against lead poisoning.

Two parties were previously sued in late October. They are Elaine C. Proeung, who as Cheang's Realty LLC owns 21 Rosedale St. in Providence and 750-752 Dyer Ave. in Cranston; and Mortgage Equity Conversion Asset Trust 2011-1, the owner of 36 Henrietta St. in Providence. The investment trust's co-trustee is U.S. Bank NA, according to the complaint.

"This office is moving to a new phase of lead-poisoning enforcement,” Neronha announced last month, during National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week. “We are going to be more proactive in this space, because there are far too many children across the state of Rhode Island that are exposed to lead poisoning. And landlords need to take the necessary steps to protect children from this hazard.”

A spokesperson for U.S. Bank said Tuesday that the bank is aware of the problem at 36 Henrietta St. and working to resolve the issues.

"U.S. Bank serves as the trustee of the trust," Cheryl Leamon told the Business Journal. "The servicer, not the trustee, is the party responsible for maintaining the property on behalf of the Trust. As soon as U.S. Bank learned of this issue, we began working closely with the servicer to ensure it was being swiftly addressed. We will continue to stay in close contact with the servicer until the code violation at this property has been resolved.

Under the Rhode Island Lead Poisoning Prevention Act, owners of multifamily rental units are required to remediate all lead hazards upon notification by the state's health department.

Proeung and the U.S. Bank-affiliated trust purchased their properties after lead violations were issued to prior owners. The notices were recorded as liens on the properties. The Department of Health issued additional notices to the new owners. The property owned by Proeung was finally cleaned up over the summer, a court document states.

Riccardi did not respond to calls for comment. Efforts to reach Proeung were unsuccessful.

The violations came to light after five children across several properties were separately tested for lead by their pediatricians. State health officials must be notified if a child's blood tests positive for elevated lead levels. The notification then triggers a property inspection.

If violations are found, owners are informed of their options for remediation or administrative appeal. If a second notice is ignored, it turns into a final compliance order. If the final order is ignored, legal action may commence. If a judge agrees, offending property owners may be fined up to $5,000 for every day that the violation was active. If necessary, a special master may be appointed to take control of the property.

In the three lawsuits, Neronha is seeking penalties and fines as allowed under the law.

Children are placed at risk of exposure in older homes that have lead paint. Dust and flakes from the paint can enter a child’s body when the child puts household objects or their own fingers into their mouths. Even low levels of lead in the blood can cause permanent harm.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no safe level for childhood lead exposure. Lead can damage a child’s brain and nervous system, increase their risk of developing permanent learning disabilities, stunt growth and development, and cause behavioral problems that persist into adulthood.

Rhode Island passed its Lead Hazard Mitigation Act in 2002. Under the law, landlords must attend a training on lead, repair any lead hazards at their properties, communicate with residents, and have the property inspected for compliance every two years.

The state offers landlords informational resources on how to handle lead hazards. It also offers a variety of options to achieve compliance, such as enrolling in the R.I. Housing Lead Safe Homes Program or the Lead Safe Providence Program.

The Providence program provides landlords with forgivable no-interest loans, said Timothy Rondeau, a spokesman for the city. Since 2010, it has cleaned up 543 housing units across 301 properties. The program has financial resources because the city and its partners in 2020 landed a $5.7M HUD Lead Hazard Reduction Demonstration Grant. The Community Action Program of Providence County is in charge of taking applications.

The idea is to remove any financial barriers and to provide incentives for compliance, said Emily Freedman, the city's community development director.

"We're trying to be the carrot in this situation," she said.

Neronha on Tuesday said his lead paint enforcement effort is not over.

“Every child in every home in Rhode Island deserves to be safe from lead poisoning,” the attorney general said in an emailed statement. “We have the tools necessary to protect children from the devastating and permanent injuries that lead can cause; it’s important that we work with cities and towns to reiterate what those tools are and how to use them. Our state’s property owners have a moral and legal responsibility to ensure that their tenants are not poisoned due to unsafe conditions. My office will continue to work aggressively to hold landlords accountable when they ignore those responsibilities and put Rhode Islanders’ lives in danger.”