Cleveland Lead Safe Network works to make Cleveland homes lead safe

by Chuck Hoven

(Plain Press, August 2017)   The Cleveland Lead Safe Network, a group of dedicated volunteers, wants “to change the way the City of Cleveland treats its youngest citizens.” The group’s goals include “enacting a lead safe housing ordinance; holding elected officials accountable for reducing and eliminating lead poisoning in our community; and empowering survivors and their families to share their stories.”

To that end, the Cleveland Lead Safe Network held a meeting July 27th to learn more about the effort in Toledo, Ohio that resulted in the passage of a Lead Safe Ordinance in that city. The ordinance requires landlords to provide proof that their rental units are lead free before they can be rented. The meeting, hosted by Organize Ohio at 3500 Lorain Avenue, also provided an opportunity to learn more about efforts in Cleveland to pass a lead safe ordinance.

Guest Speaker, Toledo Councilman at Large Larry Sykes, talked about experiences he had while serving as a board member of the Toledo public school system and public housing authority. He said those experiences helped him to see the impact of lead poisoning on children and to convince him of the importance of making housing lead safe for children.

He noted the large number of special needs students in the Toledo Public Schools and said that some of those students are special needs because of lead poisoning. He said each child in a special needs class cost the school system an extra $6,000 beyond its normal per pupil costs.

Working with the schools, he said, he learned of the importance of tracking student movements to see where the lead poisoning originated. He said often students in the system had moved multiple times, so the cooperation of the school system in tracking and testing students for lead was important in finding the source of the lead poisoning.

On the Board of the Toledo Housing Authority, Sykes says he learned about the impact of lead while working to transform the housing authority from the worst in the nation to the best over a two-year period. He said, “safe, sanitary, decent housing has always been my issue.”

Sykes talked about how groups working to tackle lead poisoning of children in Toledo such as the Toledo Lead Poisoning Prevention Coalition, Advocates for Basic Legal Equity (ABLE), Toledoans United for Social Action (TUSA), worked to get religious groups, health care workers, hospitals and other institutions on board.

The battle to get the legislation passed by Toledo City Council was fierce, said Sykes. He noted the strong opposition by landlords. He said his new car was keyed when he came out from one meeting. Sykes says, a number of his colleagues on Toledo City Council owned rental properties. He talked about appealing to fellow Council Representatives on a personal level to change their views about the necessity of passing the legislation. Sykes recalled using testimony by residents whose children suffered from lead poisoning to help persuade his colleagues.

A study by the Kirwan Institute at Ohio State University in March of 2016 reported that an estimated 3,400 Toledo children under the age of six had elevated levels of lead in their blood. An explanation of the Toledo’s Lead Safe Ordinance, passed by the Toledo City Council in 2016, notes the dangers of lead in a child’s body which, it says, can “slow down growth and development, damage hearing and speech, cause behavior problems, and make it hard to pay attention and learn.”

Sykes said there were an estimated 55,000 rental units in Toledo that were built prior to 1978 when lead paint was banned for use in residential housing. The goal is to have all the rental properties inspected within five years. Sykes said the number of inspections needed was less than that because many of the homes were vacant or boarded up. He said the city would use property tax records to help determine houses that were not abandoned. The city is also encouraging city workers, such as meter readers and first responders, to report homes that have peeling paint so they can be made a priority.

While there were only a small number of lead risk assessment inspectors when the program began, Sykes says there are now about 200 assessors. He said the training involves a 2-or-3-day training by the health department. He noted that those doing remediation and testing, involved more extensive training and state certification.

The Toledo legislation, which passed in August of 2016, requires “all rental properties (1-4 units) and in-home, daycares built prior to 1978, to register with the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department.” To register, the properties must pass a visual lead inspection that makes sure there is no chipping or peeling paint. The property must also pass a dust wipe testing (12 samples.) Sykes said the cost of such testing is about $400-$500 per property. Once the landlords have passed the test, they fill out an application and pay a $45 fee per property.

There was some discussion about some of the possible unintended consequences of the lead safe initiative. One concern was the displacement of tenants while lead abatement was taking place. Sykes says, while he has not encountered that yet in Toledo, he talked about efforts to secure funds to help families move. There was some discussion about the possibility of securing immediate eligibility for vouchers for families in Cleveland, if an ordinance could be passed here.

Sykes said Toledo is finding a need to have a uniform cost for lead testing. He says that currently, there are wide variations in the cost from one inspector to another.

Sykes said another issue in Toledo was resistance to the ordinance by owners of historic homes in Toledo’s West End. He said owners said they did not rent to children and spoke of the difficulty in addressing lead in huge mansion with lead stained glass windows protected by the rules of a historic district.

Sykes said when Toledo passed the legislation, he promised to do what he can to help defray the cost for landlords that couldn’t afford the cost. So far, Toledo has $3 million dollars to help homeowners and rental properties to renovate homes contaminated by lead. He cited Rochester, New York as an example of a city that has a successful lead abatement program.  Since the passage of the ordinance in 2005, lead poisoning rates in children have dropped by 80%. He said Rochester has raised $30 million to help defray the cost of home renovations as part of its effort to reduce lead contamination in homes. Sykes says Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur has been an ally of the City of Toledo in its effort to secure funds.

Sykes also talked about the importance of addressing other issues related to lead. He talked about the importance and difficulty of getting children to eat properly to help lower the body’s absorption of lead. He stressed the importance of education about nutrition and its impact on health. He also mentioned the need to address lead exposure in the water travelling through old water pipes.

Spenser Wells, Community Manager for Cleveland Lead Safe Network, says articles in the Plain Dealer’s Website helped to spur him to get involved in the effort to combat lead poisoning. Wells, who had been involved in the past in efforts to deal with lead poisoning in Cleveland and the State of Ohio, says it makes sense to “start with the poisoned house and make it safe before the child gets poisoned.”

Cleveland City Council Representative Jeff Johnson says he was approached by members of the Cleveland Lead Safe Network and has agreed to work with them to introduce a Cleveland Lead Safe Ordinance. He says lawyers from Cleveland Legal Aid are working to refine the ordinance to get it ready to be introduced to Cleveland City Council.

Johnson says the legislation will target three categories for mandatory lead safe compliance: landlords with rental properties, day cares, and schools with children under the age of six. He says while initially he included homeowners as a category, he has backed off from mandatory requirement for homeowners after hearing feedback from Cleveland residents. He said homeowners will not be required to participate, but there will be an effort to get them to make their homes lead safe. Johnson said the plan is to “try to win them over with education and financial incentives.”

Johnson said Legal Aid plans to have the legislation to him by early August. He praised the quality of work that Legal Aid does and says the quality of what they produce means the proposed ordinance will be ready for introduction to Cleveland City Council. He plans to share the document with his colleague, once he gets a copy back from Legal Aid, in hopes of gaining some co-sponsors for the proposed ordinance. Johnson says he then plans to introduce the legislation to Cleveland City Council at the August 16th Cleveland City Council meeting.

Johnson says the legislation will include a requirement for the Community Development Department to seek federal, state and foundation funds to help with lead assessment, remediation and homeowner education. He said the goal is to provide funds for low income homeowners who wish to assure their homes are lead safe, and to provide a need-based fund to help landlords as well.

Johnson, a candidate for Mayor of Cleveland, said he is excited about the ordinance being prepared with the help of the Cleveland Lead Safe Network and Legal Aid. He called it “focused and proactive.” Johnson believes the current City of Cleveland “approach does not sufficiently address the causes of lead poisoning.” He noted that Cleveland’s child lead exposure rate was twice that of Flint, Michigan.

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