Interview: How a Lewiston Landlord is Keeping Children Safe from Lead Poisoning

Half of all children poisoned by lead in Maine live in rental housing. Lead dust from lead paint is the most common cause of lead poisoning in children. Lead poisoning can cause brain or nerve damage, hearing impairment, stunted growth, digestive issues and more. Lead paint is found in most houses and apartment buildings built before 1950 and some built before 1978.

Bettyann Sheats owns two 100 year old rental buildings in Lewiston. Both buildings have three apartments. To protect children from getting poisoned by lead paint she applied for and received funding to remove lead hazards in her buildings. Removing lead hazards also increased her property value and improved the neighborhood. Here is an excerpt from Healthy Androscoggin’s interview with Mrs. Sheats.

Healthy Androscoggin’s interview with Bettyann Sheats:

How long have you owned property in the area?

Rental units 8 ½ years. My own home 18 years.

Why did you get into the landlord business?

I bought a property when I was in the military and decided to sell it and buy something local. My husband and I believed we could provide housing for low income families and still make a profit to help our kids through college.

How many units do you own?

We own two buildings in Lewiston with three apartments each.

How old are your units/buildings?

Both are 100 years old.

Many landlords are in the business for some sort of financial gain, but what is your philosophy on a landlord’s responsibility to tenants?

Responsibility is first. Many months we have lost money. We hoped property values would offset that in the end. In regards to utilities I try to focus on educating my tenants. For example, at Christmas one year I gave my tenants CFL lightbulbs and discussed the importance of reducing electricity. I’ve also given out blankets then talked with tenants about not having the heat on high at night.

Tell me about some of the health and safety concerns you try to address in your units?

When we first bought the houses we replaced knob and tube wiring, as well as put in attic insulation and a new roof. I’ve been aware of lead hazards all my life (my Mom ran a preschool). I knew lead wouldn’t be in the new windows in one building but that the exterior probably had lead. A contractor had heard about the lead hazard control funding Lewiston had at the time. I applied and received funding from the city of Lewiston’s lead hazard control grant to remove lead from the building’s exterior and to reside the whole house. We were grateful and excited to receive the funding. We never could have afforded to reside the house without the city funding. Removing lead improved the property value of my building and improved the neighborhood.

What about lead paint—how do you deal with lead paint in your units?

Both of my buildings were tested inside and out for lead presence through the lead hazard control funding.  To trap the lead (encapsulation) both have been resided. It was safer and cheaper than scraping and repainting. One building had no lead paint inside. The apartment with lead paint inside was mostly repainted. Areas that get a great deal of wear (in my case doors and a few doorways) were replaced.  While the interior of one building was being removed of lead the tenants were provided with housing through grant funding. After the work the lead levels were checked. Throughout the process I knew that if more work was needed that exceeded the grant I would have had to pay the bill. All my tenants receive EPA lead information for tenants and I tell them that I treat everything as if it has lead. I also tell them to contact me if they see peeling paint. I clean apartments once people move out and before people move in.

Why have you done what you have done about lead paint?

As a responsible citizen and tax payer I am protecting children from getting poisoned by lead paint. Morally it is the right thing to do. I want my children to have friends who are healthy and are able to succeed. If a child gets poisoned we could be losing the next Einstein and we wouldn’t know it.

What advice would you give landlords who are “afraid” to address lead paint?

Addressing lead paint doesn’t have to be scary. Landlords need to get information. It is another burden but it is a responsibility. Landlords have to make sure the heat works, the roof doesn’t leak and children are not getting poisoned by lead. There are lots of resources available. If you do work on your own building lead dust could effect your family as well as your tenants. And there are many resources available to help.

What have you learned in your RRP training or other research about lead paint that you think other landlords should know?

It is as simple as using a drop cloth and wetting an area before you sand or scrape. Lead paint chips can be sealed in a bag and disposed of in regular trash. Small repairs under 2×2 feet are simple. Ignoring lead can lead to destroying a child’s life and their family. If a landlord is only in it for the money they should do something else. There are easier ways to make money.  Properly taking care of lead paint is the cost of doing business.

Why did you choose to get certified for RRP instead of hiring certified contractors for any work in your units?

Getting certified to work with lead was a requirement of the lead hazard control grant. The funding I received paid for my certification. I also do a lot of work on my units and on my own older home.

What impact do you think your training or other research on lead paint has had on your units, your tenants, your business?

My training on lead will keep my tenants and their families healthier. It also adds value to Lewiston by providing more affordable and well maintained units. It also has made me a more informed business owner since I also own a small specialty construction business,

Did you know that landlords can get free, professional lead dust testing through Healthy Androscoggin?

No, I did not. I will promote this to other landlords that I know.

How do you think Healthy Androscoggin can get the word out to local landlords about the free testing and get landlords to participate?

Neighborhood Housing League could encourage tenants to recommend lead best practices to landlords. A Sun Journal article could be written on what is available for landlords around lead and energy efficiency. Healthy Androscoggin could also include lead information to the cities of Lewiston and Auburn who bi-annually send out tax bills to all property owners.

Bettyann Sheats, Auburn

owner Finishing Touches Shower Doors