California Forum

The courts are risking California home values. Lead paint measure just aims for a fix

A state parks restoration work specialist strips lead-based paint from the window on the third floor of the Governor’s Mansion in Sacramento, May 23, 2007. Sacramento Bee/ Andy Alfaro
A state parks restoration work specialist strips lead-based paint from the window on the third floor of the Governor’s Mansion in Sacramento, May 23, 2007. Sacramento Bee/ Andy Alfaro Sacramento Bee Staff Photo

A dangerous lawsuit – funded by out-of-state trial lawyers who stand to make tens of millions of dollars – will hurt California homeowners and threaten property values, taking particular aim at low-income families who’ve achieved the American dream of homeownership. Yet you wouldn’t know this after reading Dan Morain’s column on Jan. 19 on a statewide ballot measure to clean up hazards in homes.

The lawsuit claimed every home built before 1981 is a “public nuisance” if it has lead-based paint. A judge bought the trial attorney’s argument and now California residents are dealing with the consequences.

Let’s be clear on what that public nuisance language means. Every California homeowner who owns a pre-1981 home could be subject to criminal liability, eminent domain, foreclosure, special taxes to resolve the nuisance, orders to vacate or demolish, loss of tax deductions, and mandatory disclosure on real estate transactions. Their addresses will be entered into a public database.

That’s a scary concept that undermines state laws which have been thoughtfully studied and reviewed, and already regulate lead-based paint in homes. This ruling applies even if the paint is intact in accordance with existing public health regulations.

The court ruling requires paint companies to provide clean-up funding, but only to a select group of California residents. Only to fix homes built before 1951 and only in the 10 select communities that participated in the lawsuit, which include Santa Clara County, the city and county of San Francisco, Alameda County, Los Angeles County, Monterey County, city of Oakland, city of San Diego, San Mateo County, Solano County and Ventura County.

That leaves a large group of homeowners stranded – those who own homes built between 1951 and 1981 and all those residents in other cities throughout California. They’re branded negatively and have no opportunity to access funding for clean-up.

If you own a home here in Sacramento County or the city of Sacramento and it was built before 1981, you could be a victim of this or future lawsuits – saddled with the scary likelihood of decreased property values and potential criminal liability. And you’re not alone. Communities excluded from the lawsuit are in the same boat, including the Central Valley, San Diego County, and Imperial County, among others.

California’s most vulnerable will likely take the hardest hit. Low-income families who have achieved homeownership will face the harsh reality of decreased home values and added expenses to fix the problem or face the consequences. If you’re already struggling to make ends meet, this added burden could be the difference between keeping your home or simply walking away.

A solution is needed to address this problem. Our organization is supporting the Healthy Homes and Schools Act, a proposed bond measure for the November 2018 ballot that is sponsored by the paint companies impacted by the court ruling. This initiative would preempt the court decision and provide $2 billion in funding, more than double the court ruling, to fix hazardous materials in homes, schools and senior facilities in every California community – taking aim to help solve the state’s affordable housing crisis at a time when we don’t have enough affordable and clean homes.

The initiative would put money directly in the hands of residents and not trial attorneys, who stand to reap 17 percent of the court ruling funds.

Why is this a better approach? It 1) removes the dangerous public nuisance language that threatens to decrease home values and expose homeowners to potential criminal liability, 2) extends funding to clean up health hazards beyond lead paint, such as lead pipes, mold, asbestos, radon, water, pests, and ventilation issues, 3) provides funding to every community in California, 4) offers funding for schools and senior facilities and 5) holds paint companies accountable to existing state laws.

This common sense approach replaces a bad court decision with a solid solution, providing peace of mind to California homeowners who have worked hard for their dream homes.

Julian Canete is executive director of the California Hispanic Chambers of Commerce. Reach him at