Money for nothin’

February 20, 2011

Part of our retirement plan is rental property. We’re not retired yet but my wife and I own two single-family homes that we’ve been renting for 20+ years. In fact, we’ve been planning to buy some more rental property, given the current buyer’s market in real estate. But that plan may be on hold for a while.

In one of our rental houses, the tenants are a couple, the couple’s two young children, and the wife’s mother. Recently the wife called and told us that (a) her younger daughter’s blood test showed an slighlty elevated lead level and (b) that a county inspector had come to the check the house (without our knowledge) and would be sending us a list of "lead violations" that we’d be required to have remediated.

Naturally we weren’t pleased to learn about this. And we were surprised by it, too. Our older son spent his first two years in that house with us and we never had a problem with lead in his blood. Other tenants have lived there with young children with no problems to our knowledge.

The house was built in the 1940s, so it’s no surprise that it has lead-based paint beneath the latex paint that’s been applied over time. It’s comparable in age to most of the houses in its neighborhood and my estimate is that at least 75% of the other houses in the neighborhood have lead-based paint in them as well. So, lucky us.

It took a week before the county’s letter arrived at our home. And then it was another week before we could meet with the inspector – and an unexpected case worker who accompanied her. According to the case worker, any time a child’s blood tests above the limit, the county "invites itself" into the child’s home to inspect the property. I was struck by the "invites itself" euphemism for what amounts to a no-notice property inspection. But evidently that’s the law – or the regulation, I suppose.

The county inspector is requiring quite a bit of work: replacement of all the windows and the front entry door. She also specified enough work on the other two exterior doors and the interior doors and the door jambs that it will be cheaper to replace them rather than to remove the old paint and keep them. Finally, most of the interior trim (casing) for the windows & doors as well as the baseboard must be painted with an "lead encapsulating" paint.

In short, I expect it will be a $10 – $12,000 project. It’s not great news. But we’re looking on the bright side: we don’t want to be party to making a little girl ill. And the house will be much improved by having new windows and exterior doors. (The other work is unnecessary, IMO, but is the cost of doing business in a bureaucrat-regulated polity.)

All this is required in order for us to continue renting the house. Further, there’s the threat of heavy fines ($1,000 per day per violation – we had 12 violations) and imprisonment for failure to remediate the items on the inspector’s list of violations in a timely manner.

What particularly irks me is that the state and county require the work to be done by a licensed lead remediation contractor. So even though it’s all simple enough that we could do it ourselves, and take the necessary precautions while doing it, we’re not allowed to.

There are a few other things that we find unsettling about this process.

First is the severity of the threatened penalties. Who knew that landlords were such scofflaws that they need to be threatened so? Imprisonment for what amounts to a code violation? WTF?

It’s not as though the county doesn’t know where our house is, after all. And we can’t take the house on the lam with us.

Second, there’s an amazing lack of concern about causality here; there’s no scientific rigor at all. The threshold for lead poisoning is a level of 10 micrograms per deciliter of whole blood. The child’s blood test showed 15 mg/dl – just over the threshold, relative to the scale that’s used (which runs up to 50 – 60 mg/dl).

Missouri state regulation specifies that there have to be two tests, at least 3 months apart, with elevated lead levels. That’s a good way to avoid reacting to a spurious test result. But St. Louis County regulation isn’t that reasonable: a single test with an elevated result will trigger a "self invited" inspection. And if any lead paint is detected in the house, it’s immediately assumed to be the proximate cause of the problem. Q.E.D.

The county inspector told us that she’d tested the water and she’d used a "wipe test" to check for lead in dust in the house. Both of those were negative, she said. Nonetheless, there was lead paint (under newer paint) and that’s a problem that must be corrected post-haste.

Sources other than the primary residence are ignored. The little girl frequently stays with her aunt while her parents are both working. But the county won’t be interested in looking at her aunt’s house until we perform the remediation on our house. Then – if the lead level in the child’s blood is still elevated – that’s when they’ll look for other potential causes.

In short, the problem might be caused by something in a different place where the child regularly spends time, but that makes no difference to what we’re required to do.

But the third point is the one I find particularly disappointing. It’s the "free money" attitude of most of the people involved. When we met with the county inspector she urged us to apply for funding for this work and gave us a flyer describing a source. I didn’t read it myself but my wife told me that it works like this.

If the tenant’s personal income qualifies (i.e., is low enough) then the property owner can get funding for remediating the lead. What kind of sense does that make? The only thing I can think is that they don’t want landlords to raise the rent as a result of the expenses being imposed on them.

But the funding isn’t a grant; it’s a loan. When the house is sold, the loan must be repaid. In other words, we could get "free money" to finance this work (or part of it) at the cost of a lien on hour house. Thanks but no thanks.

Naturally, the contractors we’ve talked to know all about this. After we describe the work to them, they all tell us, "You know, you can get ‘free money’ to do this."

What is it with all these people? Isn’t believing in "free money" sort of like believing in the Easter Bunny? Don’t they realize where that money comes from?

I understand that any particular individual may feel like he’s getting over on the system when the "free money" he gets is more than a year or two’s tax bill. But don’t they understand that this isn’t the only "free money" deal going on? There are probably thousands of programs in the United States that are funded by government grants — that is, that pass out "free money".

Our taxes have to pay for all of those programs. So a one-time "free money" benefit is probably no benefit at all – relative to having long-term lower taxes by eliminating all those give-aways.

One comment

  1. […] Seriously, what are these people (Abelson and Thomas) thinking? That there’s such a thing as Money For Nothin’? […]

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