by Rachel Dissell
(Plain Press, January 2021) A new fund is offering $500 incentives and other financial support to Cleveland property owners and families to remove lead paint-based hazards from homes.
The Lead Safe Home Fund combines rebates, grants and loans in an effort to aid landlords who must comply with the city’s new lead-safe certification, and to reduce the overall number of homes and apartments that pose a risk for young children exposed to lead dust, which when ingested can cause irreversible damage to their developing brains.
The primary goal is to help property owners comply with the city’s new standard, said Matt Sattler, who oversees lead services for CHN Housing Partners, which is managing the grants and loans for the fund. Another nonprofit, Environmental Health Watch, is running the Lead Safe Resource Center, which helps families, landlords and contractors navigate assistance and get training.
But there’s also a longer-term objective to improve the overall health and safety of the properties, Sattler said, which is why he encourages all property owners, even if they think they might not qualify, to call and talk about their options.
Sattler said CHN’s team is focused on problem-solving and being as flexible as possible. That might mean helping a property owner find additional money or financing for home repairs. Hearing from many landlords and tenants and understanding hurdles to qualifying will help CHN and the fund know if they need to make adjustments, he said.
The nonprofit is also working to streamline the process for property owners by using a rotation of pre-qualified contractors. The goal is to have a contractor assigned and work on interior projects completed within 45 days – or sooner – once the property owner submits the final application and documents for grants or loans, Sattler said. Exterior projects will depend on weather in Cleveland’s winter months.
The majority of projects the fund expects to enable are for what are called interim controls, which involve techniques to mitigate lead exposure. That includes cleaning, repairing and painting surfaces such as baseboards, doorways and windowsills. The work is considered a temporary way to contain hazards and will have to be maintained by tenants and landlords, which is why units are being inspected every two years.
Sattler said that in cases where wood surfaces such as doors or windows frames are too deteriorated to be painted, loans and grants can cover encapsulation or replacement to the extent the project funds will allow. That is determined on a case-by-case basis, he said.
The fund is a first-of-its-kind effort to pool government, foundation and private money to support repair work in the most at-risk city rental units, many of which were constructed before 1978 before lead-based paint was banned for residential use.
The underlying need for the loan fund — which in one year has raised $30 million — is that some owners of Cleveland’s estimated 100,000 rental units, especially “mom and pop” landlords who own a duplex or just a few homes and can’t afford to eliminate lead hazards on their own.
Grants and loans are available to owners who occupy duplexes and also have tenants. At some point, similar loans may be available for owner-occupied homes, though rental units are the current priority.
At least 20,000 of the rental properties are considered distressed — in bad condition and short on equity — making traditional bank loans unlikely, according to Case Western Reserve University research.
At the same time, the vast majority of the young children in Cleveland who are poisoned live in rental units, and about a quarter who attended city schools in recent years were exposed to the dangerous toxin before they entered kindergarten. Those children often struggle with reading and math or have trouble paying attention — issues that have long been linked to lead poisoning. As they grow, they are more likely to be ensnared in the justice system or not have stable housing, CWRU researchers found.
The Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition estimates that $99.4 million is needed over the next few years to complete the necessary work, and fundraising will continue with new commitments anticipated in 2021.
The incentives can be applied to loan balances or as $500 rebates to property owners. They are meant to spur early compliance with the new lead certificate law, which the city plans to enforce a few ZIP codes at a time because the process is new and also involves workforce training to make sure enough inspectors and certified contractors are available to handle the work.
Landlord Rick Bias was the first to complete the lead inspection process. Three of the eight properties he owns on the east and south sides of Cleveland have been cleared of lead hazards and he’s made arrangements to file the paperwork with the city, even though the lead certificate process doesn’t officially kick off until Jan. 1.
Bias, who has been a landlord since 1987, said he does have concerns about starting a process that involves thousands of inspections during a pandemic and that it will force landlords to raise rents.
For his properties the process “wasn’t really all that painful, he said, likely because they are already well maintained with quality paint and flooring in keeping with his philosophy that having long-term relationships with tenants is better for business. Other landlords, who haven’t made investments or whose tenants turn over often, may struggle.
Previously, Bias hadn’t had his units tested for lead hazards and only recently learned more about lead poisoning, including that most children are exposed by dust, which is almost invisible.
“I want to do the right things,” he said. “I would never want to harm a child.”
Editor’s Note: This story is provided by Ideastream as part of special community coverage of COVID-19 and funded by Third Federal Foundation and University Settlement.