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Cleveland's lead safe legislation moves closer to becoming a reality

lead placard
Posted at 4:00 PM, Jul 23, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-23 18:20:33-04

CLEVELAND — It is one of Cleveland’s most vexing challenges and its impact is lifelong. However, the toxic legacy of lead may soon begin to wane. The City Council’s Development, Planning and Sustainability Committee unanimously passed the much-discussed lead safe legislation Tuesday morning, including three amendments that may please some landlords who remain concerned by the legislation.

Introduced earlier this year, the lead safe legislation, as written, would require residential rental units be certified as lead safe by March 2021. All rental units in the city—estimated to be upwards of 80,000—would need to be certified as lead safe by March 2023. Landlords would be required to provide the city’s department of building and housing a copy of a clearance examination or lead risk assessment that lead hazards were not found in the rental unit. For the rentals that do have lead, the toxic heavy metal must removed in way that the property qualifies as "lead safe."

Lead safe is a lesser but more obtainable standard than lead free.

The Development, Planning and Sustainability Committee read and later approved three amendments to the proposed legislation. The ordinance was amended to allow landlords that have an unoccupied unit that is not generating rent to be exempt from lead safe certification. However, that landlord would be required to submit a notarized affidavit every year. Additionally, landlords that completely abate lead from the rental property will be eligible for a 20 year lead safe certification.

The amendments also include "conflict of interest" provisions that forbid landlords from hiring a family member, agent, employee or owner of the rental property from performing the lead clearance examination or lead risk assessment. In a move that will likely please landlords, one member of the Lead Safe Advisory Board shall be a current landlord, according to one of the approved amendments.

Lastly, the ordinance has been amended to include legal language that will allow the rest of the ordinance to remain valid if any part of it is found to be invalid. This "severability" clause will allow the rest of ordinance to remain intact if certain parts of it are subjected to legal challenges.

“At some point in time people were saying this was impossible. What we did today – if we pass this out of committee – we’ll be one step closer to just doing the right thing,” said Councilman Blaine Griffin (Ward 6). “We’re not just doing the impossible but doing what is right.”

The committee’s passage of the lead safe legislation is yet another important step on its way to becoming city code. The legislation, which was drafted based on recommendations from the Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition, is the city’s first substantial step in addressing the lead crisis in decades.

Released in January, two studies from Case Western Reserve University found a quarter of kindergartners in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District begin their education with a history of elevated blood lead levels. The studies also concluded there was a discernible disparity between lead exposure among children on the East and West Sides. Kindergartners attending schools on the East Side are far more likely to have elevated levels of lead exposure, the study said.

Children can be exposed primarily through lead-based paint that’s prevalent on much of the city’s aging housing stock. Exposure happens when the paint begins to peel, allowing it to be digested or inhaled. The federal government banned lead-based paint in 1978.

Despite an overall drop in the rate of children with elevated blood lead levels statewide, children in Cuyahoga County account for more than 40% of the children living in the state with elevated lead levels. Exposure to lead can cause issues with cognitive development, affecting a myriad of things, including behavior, IQ scores, hearing and speech.

Councilman Griffin said the lead safe legislation and subsequent amendments came together after months of collaboration and communication between public, private and philanthropic agencies. There have also been a series of meetings out in the community to gauge public sentiment, Griffin said.

One of the prevailing questions council members and city officials have received centers around why the legislation solely applies to landlords.

“I want to say it’s not picking on landlords. It’s basically where do we focus to get the best opportunity to try to make sure we have a really preventative model. Inspections in our community are the cost of doing business in the City of Cleveland,” Griffin said. “We have a health department that also inspects restaurants to make sure there is a quality of service that we get from the food that is being prepared in our restaurants. It’s the same type of cost of doing business for landlords.”

The lead safe legislation also requires sellers of a one, two, three or four unit rental property to disclose the condition of the property and its lead safe status. A lead safe auditor will also be created and will be tasked with monitoring the lead safe certification process.

As part of the legislation, the city council will have annual reviews of the program.

A property’s lead safe status will be rolled into the city’s existing rental registry, which falls under the jurisdiction of the department of building and housing. Director Ayonna Blue Donald said her agency is up to the task of implementing and enforcing the program if it is approved by Council.

“Building and Housing is eager and ready to continue to build upon the accomplishments that we have made over the past two years to implement the rental inspection unit and program,” Blue Donald said. “We have set goals and met them with the rental inspection unit. We are confident that we can make this happen.”

Griffin expressed the same confidence, saying the legislation was created in conjunction with Mayor Frank Jackson, his directors and the rest of the administrative staff.

“We can make sure as we’re crafting legislation we actually have them at the table to say, ‘how are you going to operationalize this?’” Griffin said. “We actually had them at the table every step of the way.”

Under the ordinance, landlords would be responsible for footing the bill for not only the inspections but also the abatement of the lead hazards in the property. For property owners who may not be able to afford such an expense, the city will be relying on their private and philanthropic partners.

“Legislation alone is not enough but it is a critical start in this process,” said Councilman Kerry McCormack (Ward 3). “We have to ensure that we get ahead of this and children aren’t being poised by lead in the community, specifically in homes in our neighborhoods. We have to do it.”

The legislation will go before the Finance Committee on Wednesday morning. If approved, the legislation would then go to the full Council for a vote.