Capital Beat: Landlords warn new lead regulations could spike rents

Monitor staff
Monday, November 13, 2017

The vote was nearly unanimous: 23 of 26 members of the House Finance Committee approved a bill that would increase lead testing and remove regulations in New Hampshire.

And it’s a cause with broad support. Senate Bill 247 would require health care providers offer universal lead testing to all one- and two-year-olds, and would lower the threshold blood lead testing level in children necessary to trigger mandatory action by landlords to remove harmful sources of lead. In a state with some of the oldest housing stock – much of which contains lead paint – members of both parties say the increased regulation would help reduce hazards that could harm children’s health.

But in clearing the Finance Committee on Wednesday, the bill heads to the House floor with an amendment changing how property owners might receive financial assistance for carrying out repairs. Rather than $6 million in grants made available for qualifying home owners looking to remove lead hazards, that money would come in the form of a guaranteed loan program, with up to 60 percent of the cost of repairs available to be covered by the state.

Now, landlords are crying foul.

“There’s no way this bill will help affordable housing in any way,” Rick Plais, a landlord in Manchester who’s been in the business 35 years, said at a hearing Tuesday. Many other property owners echoed the complaint. Of particular concern, Plais said: the removal of the grant program, which he said landlords were counting on to help mitigate the expected cost.

SB 247 has been championed by children’s health advocates and legal organizations as a means to speed up lead removal statewide by putting the responsibility on landlords.

Prior to being made illegal in 1978, lead paint was widely used on American houses for decades. Research has shown that lead ingested in young children – who are most susceptible – can sustain permanent muscular and brain damage that can cause developmental problems.

An earlier version passed the Senate 15-7, with all the chamber’s Democrats and half its Republicans providing support.

The bill would also mandate that day care licenses follow lead regulations; and that health insurers include coverage for the blood tests in their plans.

But in solving one crisis, critics say the bill could be adding to another. Landlords argue the additional burdens will only drive up rent costs and contribute to New Hampshire’s affordable housing crisis, and say the lead problems should be fixed through state funding.

Plais claimed lowering the threshold for mandatory abatements could raise rents by $300 to $400 a month, assuming an average cost of $25,000 per unit for apartments that do have lead. And he and others expressed disappointment in the funding changes, citing what he said were decades of efforts by landlord groups to come up with the compromise passed by the Senate in March.

“I look at 25 years that’s just been wasted,” he said.

Other experts disagreed. Ben Frost, Director of Public & Legal Affairs at the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority – which focuses on affordable rent in the state – said while his organization doesn’t have hard data, the expected hike in rents from the new regulations would not be severe.

“My sense is given the great host of pressures that we have on the housing market in New Hampshire, this act would have a limited, perhaps measurable impact on prices,” he said.

Rep. Frank Byron, R-Litchfield, who chairs the Division III Finance Committee that oversaw the latest draft, said he sides with Frost’s assessment.

Despite the full-throated committee support, the future for the bill when it heads to the House floor in January as amended is uncertain. Among the changes made in the committee’s final draft, were a loosening of the Department of Health and Human Services inspection measures and the removal of a requirement that public schools carry out lead abatements – which could rankle its original supporters.

Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord, a prime sponsor of the original bill, declined to comment Wednesday on whether he would specifically support the latest version, opening up the possibility of further tinkering by conference committee.

But still, with a bill that boasts deep-set support – Republican Speaker Shawn Jasper testified at Tuesday’s hearing to praise it – Feltes is keeping upbeat.

“This is a bipartisan, bicameral priority to deal with the public health epidemic of childhood lead poisoning from both paint and water,” he said. “And I’m hopeful we can get it done.”

Changing winds

New Hampshire’s bid to add a work requirement to its Medicaid expansion now has its first positive public signal from Washington. On Tuesday, Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), said the federal department would be open to waivers to the Affordable Care Act that could add such requirements.

“Let me be clear to everyone in this room, we will approve proposals that promote community engagement activities,” she said in a speech, signaling a departure from Obama-era policy. Among those activities, she specified, were work requirements.

Gov. Chris Sununu sent New Hampshire’s waiver application Oct. 24 – one of eight states to do so. As this column has noted, the stakes are high: A clause in this year’s budget trailer bill requires CMS approval of a work requirement waiver by April 30, 2018 – any later and the Medicaid expansion program shuts down by the end of 2018.

On Wednesday, Sununu called the waiver necessary, expressing his hope it would be granted.

“Assuming Obamacare stays in place, there’s no reason why the administration (shouldn’t) be able to give us more flexibility so we can manage better,” he said.

Selfie sticking point

The ballot selfie ban is gone, but not forgotten. On Thursday, an amended version of bill that would effectively restore a ban on photographing a ballot in a voting booth – House Bill 249 – was put into interim study at an executive session session Election Law Committee.

In September 2016, the federal First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston ruled that New Hampshire’s previous ban on sharing ballot photos was an unconstitutional breach of the First Amendment. In her latest amendment to the bill, Committee chairwoman Barbara Griffin, R-Goffstown, sought a new approach: Instead of banning the sharing of photos themselves, the bill would ban any activity in the polling booth not related to the act of voting, including photographs. But after some Republican committee members balked at previous legal rulings, the group voted largely along party lines to put the bill to study.

The committee’s move keeps the bill off the consent calendar and likely means it’ll stay buried for the rest of the legislative biennium. But if the vote is any indication, it might not be the last time the ban makes an attempted comeback.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)