by Chuck Hoven
(Plain Press, June 2018) At its May 21 meeting, Cleveland City Council’s Health and Human Services Committee heard testimony from representatives of three different community groups working to address childhood lead poisoning in Cleveland. The hearing was the second in a series on the issues. Testifying before the committee were representatives from Cleveland Lead Safe Network, Environmental Health Watch and Concerned Citizens Organized Against Lead (CCOAL).
Last month, the committee heard from administration officials on the status of the city’s efforts to address lead poisoning. Committee Chair Blaine Griffin said he hopes to bring organization to the table at the next meeting that fund efforts to address childhood lead poisoning. He also said that his committee would be looking to learn about best practices in other cities.
After hearing from funders, Griffin said a joint meeting of Cleveland City Council’s Health and Human Services as well as the Development, Planning and Sustainability Committees would be held. The committee’s goal is to come up with a sustainable, well-funded comprehensive package of legislation based on the input of all parties by the end of the year. Griffin says he understands the “sense of urgency” to address this issue, but also wants to “make sure we get it right.”
At the meeting, members of the Cleveland Lead Safe Network made a presentation to the committee.
Tazz Mays began the group’s presentation by sharing information on some of the social consequences of lead poisoning. He noted the correlation between lead exposure and the violent crime, low reading scores and to the number of youths in the juvenile justice system. Mays said that Cleveland had twice as many youths in the juvenile justice system as Columbus and noted the number of children with elevated lead levels was 2 to 3 percent in Columbus, while in Cleveland the number of children with elevated lead levels was 14 percent.
Mays also talked about Cleveland Lead Safe Network’s support of Cleveland Ordinance 990-17 for passage. The proposed ordinance requires owners of rental properties built before the lead paint ban of 1978, to hire a certified lead risk assessor. The lead risk assessor would be required to identify hazards, correct the hazards, and conduct dust wipe clearance test.
Mays said the proposal calls for enlisting Community Development Corporations to maintain lists of rental houses in their service areas that have received lead remediation. He noted some options to help reduce the financial burden on landlords including a property tax credit for rental property owners that have invested in making their properties lead safe.
The proposal, May said, stops lead poisoning at the source and makes sure that rental properties are lead safe before they are rented to families with children.
Diana King, another member of Cleveland Lead Safe Network, shared her personal experience of having a child in her household with lead poisoning. Having lived in an old apartment building, where both the apartment and the soil around it was found to be contaminated with lead, it was the most likely cause of having a child that was diagnosed with autism.
The last speaker for Cleveland Lead Safe Network, Spencer Wells, said that the group has joined with the Ohio Healthy Homes Network to oppose State of Ohio legislation that would prevent local governments from administering their lead safe programs. Wells spoke of the proposed Cleveland legislation as a way to protect tenants from retaliatory action by landlords. He said that under this legislation, tenants would not have to report landlords when there was a lead poisoning problem as the landlords would be required to have a certification that the rental unit was lead-free before it could be rented.
Ward 12 Councilman Anthony Brancatelli said the city already has laws that hold landlords responsible for chipping and peeling paint.
However, “One of the issues is being able to enforce the law.” Brancatelli said.
Wells responded, saying that the advantage of the proposed legislation is that it shifts the burden of obtaining the lead risk assessment and remediation from the city of Cleveland to the landlord. Wells said that should free up resources in the City of Cleveland Building and Housing Department. By doing this, Well said, resources now devoted to testing could be used to make sure the landlords comply with the law.
Brancatelli responded, saying there is not voluntary compliance with current laws and said that there is a challenge to get people into court. He noted that in the city there are 40,000 tax delinquent properties, 5,000 condemned properties and difficulties getting delinquent water bills paid. Brancatelli argued that just passing a law, doesn’t mean landlords would voluntarily comply.
Wells suggested that one way to assure compliance would be to go after landlords’ pocketbooks with a rent deposit program.
Ward 7 Councilman Basheer Jones called for a sense of urgency in addressing lead poisoning, saying “people get tired of just hearing things are getting worked on.” He also shared a family connection to lead poisoning, saying “one of my cousins is in and out of jail because of lead poisoning. His children are without their father.”
Ward 3 Councilman Kerry McCormack noted that the city of Cleveland has stepped up its rental inspections and asked, “How do we marry existing efforts with new efforts to make it happen?”
Wells responded that by putting the burden on the landlord to have the property inspected, city employees wouldn’t have to do the inspections. “You say, ‘Mr. Landlord, you have to turn in your information that this property is lead safe.’ ”
Brancatelli warned, “The city still has to do enforcement.”
McCormack summed up the proposed legislation noting the landlord must prove they have had an inspection, and if the inspection comes back negative, they must do remediation.
In her testimony, Environmental Health Watch Executive Director Kim Foreman called for a multi-sector sustainable task force that develops solutions and funding to prevent lead poisoning. She said the task force would research what is being done right as well as wrong. Foreman also said that the task force would involve doctors and everyone would help craft solutions.
Foreman described Environmental Health Watch’s role as the lead organization in a BUILD Health Challenge grant which funded a pilot program called Engaging the Community in New Approaches to Healthy Housing. She noted data collected during the first phase of the program will now be used in a data-driven effort to create healthier homes in target Cleveland neighborhoods. This effort, Foreman said, includes addressing lead hazards in homes. She stresses that multi-sector collaboration was the way to get the work done. Foreman cited collaborations by the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA), renters, landlords, hospital systems, Building and Housing and Public Health departments.
On the neighborhood level, Foreman explained that she partnered with Kris Harsh of Metro West Neighborhood Development and Hispanic Alliance’s former employee Jasmin Santana, who helped with access to residential homes in the Clark Metro, Stockyard and Brooklyn Centre neighborhoods.
Foreman also said that she supports the mandatory inspections called for by Cleveland Lead Safe Network’s proposal.
While plenty of funders have come aboard to help address lead poisoning, Foreman said, in the long run, the effort to abate lead can’t depend on foundations and government grants. She called for the city of Cleveland to enforce its rental property registry law and said the estimated $2.3 million raised yearly by rental registration should be used to help rental tenants and landlords to pay for lead abatement. She noted the critical importance of creating a culture of healthy homes, but stressed: “they have to be affordable as well.”
Robin Brown of Concerned Citizens Against Lead (CCOAL) talked about educating families about lead for two decades with no funding. She noted her organization’s efforts to talk to families about things they can do at home and creating a support system for families of children that have experienced lead poisoning.
Brown noted children that experienced lead poisoning in the 1980s and 1990s are adults today. She offered to provide certified training to Ward 8 Councilman Kevin Conwell’s volunteers that go door-to-door in the neighborhood so they can effectively teach residents about the dangers of lead.
She also talked about a program that her daughter created to teach middle school students about the symptoms of lead poisoning. She said the students were able to identify behavioral issues that might be a result of lead poisoning. The students then encouraged their parents to have them and their siblings tested.
Brown said that the cost to care for one child with lead poisoning over a lifetime is $1 million. She noted an increased incidence of Autism and ADHD as a result of lead poisoning.
Brown called for the creation of an outreach program in the city to educate families about the dangers of lead and how to address them.
Councilman Jones stressed the importance of activists and public officials staying involved in addressing the issue of lead poisoning. Speaking on behalf of the newly elected members of City Council, Jones said, “I guarantee we will put fire to it on this side.”