Public Health & Recreation

Attorney General Sues Rhode Island Landlord for Violations of Lead Laws

Pioneer Investment allegedly violated numerous regulations at expense of renters

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Photos of Pioneer properties as provided by current and former tenants to the Rhode Island attorney general’s office.

PROVIDENCE — The attorney general office’s has filed a lawsuit against a major Rhode Island rental corporation and its president for failing to comply with numerous state lead hazard, rental, and consumer protection laws that have placed the health and safety of hundreds of renters at risk and which constitute unfair market practices.

In the complaint filed June 6 in Providence County Superior Court, Attorney General Peter Neronha alleges Pioneer Investments LLC and its president, Anurag Sureka, routinely ignore lead hazard laws, landlord-tenant laws, housing code regulations, and regularly engage in unfair and deceptive trade practices.

The result, as alleged, is that Pioneer’s properties fall into disrepair, pose significant health and safety risks, and endanger Rhode Island renters and in particular the children who reside in these properties. The Providence-based company owns and operates more than 175 residential rental units in Rhode Island.

“Let’s cut right to it — as alleged, profits are being placed over basic human dignity and that cannot stand,” Neronha said when the lawsuit was announced. “In Rhode Island, nearly 500 children are lead poisoned every year. It is preventable, and the toll that these children and we as a community pay is enormous.”

At least 11 children have had detectable levels of lead and at least five children have been lead-poisoned while living in Pioneer properties, according to the attorney general’s lawsuit.

Childhood lead poisoning has declined sharply since its peak in the 1970s, but it is still a significant problem, especially in Rhode Island’s urban core.

Despite substantial improvements in the prevention of childhood lead poisoning and the passage of lead abatement laws, several hundred children in Rhode Island are still poisoned annually. Many of them live in marginalized neighborhoods.

Last year, during a environmental justice forum sponsored by the Rhode Island Sierra Club, David Veliz, chair of the Sierra Club’s Environmental Justice Committee and director of the Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty, said lead poisoning is “one of the biggest environmental justice hazards impacting our children and community.”

Children can get lead poisoning by eating lead chips from flaking window sills (they need to be stripped to the wood to remove all of the lead paint) or other long-ago painted areas that are peeling; ingesting or breathing dust that contains lead; drinking tap water that contains lead from old pipes; eating fruits or vegetables that have lead on them from the soil around pre-1978 homes; and/or from some toys and household products.

Pioneer tenants affirmed in sworn affidavits the presence of significant lead poisoning hazards, persistent rodent infestations, deterioration of the building structure, cracking walls and windows, and intermittent loss of water and heat in numerous properties.

A cross-reference of Pioneer properties with the Rhode Island Department of Health (DOH) and municipal code enforcement officials revealed a pattern of violations and failure to adhere to proper lead hazard mitigation and notification and maintenance code compliance, according to the attorney general’s complaint. It is further alleged that Pioneer improperly charged and overcharged late fees on tenants.

Last fall, Pioneer tenants gathered, as was reported by Uprise RI, in West Warwick to deliver a letter of demands and announce they were organizing a tenant union to deal with the rats, bugs, mold, leaks, lack of heat, lack of water, and lead poisoning in their homes.

The letter of demands read, in part: “We, the tenants of Pioneer Investments, are requesting immediate repairs to our apartments. We have reached out to you about these repairs as individuals, but have had our requests ignored and mishandled.”

Legal actions to hold landlords accountable are part of Rhode Island’s comprehensive approach to minimizing lead exposure to children, according to Dr. Utpala Bandy, DOH’s interim director.

“Safe and healthy housing is a key environmental determinant of health,” Bandy said.

The lawsuit also calls for the appointment of an independent monitor to oversee and report on Pioneer’s compliance with its obligations and to assess each property.

Lead enforcement is a Neronha priority. Since fall 2021, the attorney general has filed 19 lawsuits and obtained hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties from landlords who have failed to fully address serious lead violations in properties where children were lead poisoned.

As a result of the office’s actions, more than 65 housing units have been remediated following the issuance of intent to sue letters, pre-suit negotiations, and lawsuits.

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