The Mount family already felt pressure to find a new place to live that could fit their family when a re-housing nonprofit showed them a large apartment in a duplex in Buffalo.
“So, we looked at the apartment, and aesthetically the apartment is gorgeous,” said Bethany Mount, who agreed to sign the lease so their family of six could move in by December 2019.
What they Mounts did not know was the landlord that rented them the upstairs apartment already was in the crosshairs of the Erie County Department of Health’s lead poisoning prevention program.
Five months before the Mounts rented the upstairs unit at 72 Hammerschmidt Ave., a child of the renters in the downstairs unit of the duplex tested positive for an elevated blood-lead level.
County health sanitarians inspected the lower apartment and found 12 areas inside and outside around windows and on the front porch that they deemed conducive to lead poisoning.
The Mounts told News 4 Investigates that neither the landlord, Honesty Property Management, nor the county health department alerted them to the lead paint hazards prior to their moving in upstairs.
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In fact, county records show their upper apartment never got inspected because at the time the county did not have an active elevated blood-lead level case for that unit; the county only had one case for the separate downstairs unit.
“Here’s the kicker: All he had to do was hand me a pamphlet that said this house may contain lead,” Bethany Mount said.
Little did the Mounts know that in less than a year of living in the upstairs apartment, their lives would be turned upside down by a hidden threat that would eventually leave them homeless and practically penniless.
For starters, after eight months in the upper apartment, three of the Mount’s four children tested positive for elevated blood-lead levels. Their daughter’s blood test registered high enough to trigger an environmental inspection of their apartment, where county health sanitarians found 20 more lead paint hazards.
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Although the county health department first cited Honesty Management for lead paint hazards in July 2019, the enforcement process would drag on for about three years before both apartments got cleared for occupancy.
MD J Abedin, the owner, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor last summer when he admitted to renting out the lower apartment in violation of the county’s “Do Not Rent” order.
But he didn’t serve any jail time or pay any fines – a resolution that the Mounts found hard to comprehend considering this saga impacted two separate families.
Bethany Mount said what happened to her family revealed some weaknesses in how the county health department handles some of its lead poisoning prevention work and she would like to see changes to ensure no other children get sick in a building where an active case of lead poisoning already exists.
“This man turned my whole life upside down and he was given nothing,” Bethany Mount said about the sentence.
The health department said, in general, a report of a child testing positive for an elevated blood-lead level above the state standard is what triggers an environmental investigation of the specific home or apartment unit the child spent most of his or her time in. In other words, other units in an apartment building or the other unit in a double would not get inspected without permission from the tenants or landlords.
“When we get an elevated child lead-blood level we do react to that very quickly,” said Jennifer Delaney, the director of the health department’s division of environmental health.
Unit in duplex targeted by health department
In July 2019, the county sent Honesty Property a notice and demand letter in response to a child in the downstairs unit testing positive for an elevated blood-lead level. At the time, a couple with a young daughter lived in the unit.
The Erie County Department of Health is normally notified by medical professionals whenever a child tests positive for an elevated blood-lead level. Depending on how high the blood test is, county health sanitarians would do an exterior and interior environmental review of the home or apartment unit to test for lead paint concentrations on the walls, doors, baseboards, window frames and sills.
The health department plays the lead role in lead paint inspections and enforcement throughout the county, including in the City of Buffalo. That’s a hefty task considering 85,000 homes in Buffalo are at risk for lead paint hazards, with 12,000 that have documented lead paint problems where children under the age of 6 live.
Sanitarians had already completed an environmental inspection of the downstairs unit and verified 12 conditions inside and outside that posed risks for lead poisoning, including on the laundry chute door and trim, the ceiling, eaves, and railings on the front porch and several windows.
The notice stated that failure to comply would lead to legal action and penalties up to $2,500 per violation.
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Most of the work involved stabilizing peeling or chipping paint with new coats of paint and the county gave the company until Aug. 20, 2019, to complete the repairs.
In September 2019, Abedin became certified as a lead-safe certified renovator after finishing an 8-hour course on the health effects of lead-based paint, how to test for it and how to renovate property using lead-safe practices. He even walked away with two gallons of primer and a Swiffer sweeper starter kit as an incentive to get certified.
The original work plan stated that Abedin would finish by Nov. 15, 2019.
County records state that in October 2019, the owner called to report he completed work in the lower apartment, but the county inspector noted that nine of the 12 lead-paint hazards remained out of compliance.
No progress transpired over the holidays as the Mounts took residency.
The Mounts felt stuck
About six months after the Mounts moved in, Bethany Mount said her four children would frequently complain of feeling “yucky” with headaches.
She also noticed behavioral and memory issues in not only her children, but her husband, which prompted them to seek medical advice. To complicate matters, her husband developed seizures, and doctors were unsure of why.
Doctors performed blood tests on each family member and three of her four children were diagnosed with elevated blood-lead levels, with their youngest daughter registering a level high enough that required county health sanitarians to return to the duplex to inspect the upper apartment.
County records show that the inspection of Mounts upstairs apartment in August 2020 resulted in 20 lead-paint hazards – 66% more than the number found in the lower apartment almost a year earlier. The landlord this same month filed eviction papers for the Mount family.
“[Health department officials] had no idea nobody was even living there,” Bethany Mount said.
The test results for their children came back in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, after former governor Andrew Cuomo approved a statewide emergency order that prohibited many residents from leaving their homes.
Then Chris Mount lost his job, and the family did not have the funds to secure a new place to live.
The Mounts said they did not know who to turn to for guidance.
“So, we literally had no income to say, hey, can I move into your apartment,” Bethany Mount said. “So, we were stuck here, and ultimately ended up at the Family Promise Homeless Shelter.”
And it would still be nearly two years before both apartments would finally pass inspection.
“One thing is we absolutely want voluntary compliance,” Delaney said. “Some of the people own multiple properties and if we can educate them to understand the hazards associated with having these conditions conducive to lead poisoning in these properties, we can hopefully get them to take proactive approaches towards their other properties.”
But that approach failed her family, Bethany Mount said.
County records show that the landlord was not proactive in ensuring the upstairs apartment would be lead-safe and even failed to complete all the work mandated by the health department for the lower apartment more than five months after it got involved.
In fact, county records show that the landlord violated a no-occupancy order for the lower apartment and was ordered to stop work on in March 2022 for not following proper lead-safe practices.
Enforcement drags on years
The Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 reduced the number of visits that the health department could make to the duplex, so there was little movement on the case through that summer and fall.
With work still outstanding in October 2020, the county taped a “Do Not Occupy” order on the front door for the downstairs apartment.
Eight more months passed before a health sanitarian in June 2021 noticed that the lower apartment had been rented out in violation of the order.
In addition, in March 2022, the county placed a stop-work order on the door when a health sanitarian noticed repairs being done on lead-paint surfaces by someone who did not have proper certified lead-safe training.
In all, county records show that it would be nearly three years before both units would be cleared for occupancy.
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Delaney, the director of the county’s division of environmental health, said there are a couple of factors for why some cases make take this long to resolve.
One factor is the renovator must be lead-safe certified or take the 8-hour course when it becomes available to get certified.
The second factor is the weather.
“We don’t consider a home to be cleared of violations until all interior and exterior work is completed,” Delaney said. “Unfortunately, we can’t do exterior work during the cold months.”
County authorities charged MD J Abedin, owner of Honesty Property, with a misdemeanor count of willful violation of health laws by violating the county’s no occupancy order when he rented the lower apartment before he had completed all the repairs for unsafe lead levels. The upper apartment that the Mounts rented was not a part of the prosecution.
In August 2022, Abedin received a one-year conditional discharge for his guilty plea, along with 100 hours of community service, and he was ordered to keep his rental properties in compliance with all health laws.
Erie County District Attorney John Flynn declined to discuss the case in an on-camera interview.
Abedin, reached by phone, declined an on-camera interview, but said he rented out the lower apartment because he thought he got the approval from the county health department.
As for the upstairs apartment, Abedin said he was unable to do any work inside the apartment until the Mounts moved out, which didn’t happen until April 2022, almost two years after her children tested positive. Then the phone disconnected, and he did not answer return calls.
Delaney said the county health department is focused on making apartments and homes safer by identifying and fixing lead-paint hazards.
“So, we’re really there dealing with the home and the conditions conducive to lead poisoning within that home,” Delaney said. “We’re not there to remove people from a housing situation. We’re there to ensure that those lead conditions and issues get resolved.”
When asked if the county laws have enough teeth to deter landlords from renting out apartments that might have lead-paint hazards, Delaney said most landlords comply and make the repairs without much delay.
“Taking time away from them, taking resources away from them, will get them to understand the seriousness of these conditions and will get them to act on them,” Delaney said. “Are there always going to be those few that it’s not enough? Yes. But hopefully through repetitive and continued going after them for multiple different properties and violations, the message does get across.”
Bethany Mount said she was sick to her stomach when she learned of the sentence her former landlord received, considering what her family went through.
“There’s no way I should have ever been in that position,” said Bethany Mount, fighting back tears. “I feel so let down by everybody.”
If you live in a home or apartment building built before 1978, it is important to protect yourself and your children from exposure to any lead paint dust and chips. Any home built before 1978 is presumed by county health officials to have lead paint somewhere inside or outside the home. Any Erie County resident concerned about potential exposure to lead can call Erie County Department of Health at 716-961-6800
Dan Telvock is an award-winning investigative producer and reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2018. See more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.