CLEVELAND — As a group of leaders from Cleveland’s public, private and philanthropic communities continues working on possible solutions to the city’s decades old lead crisis, so too does the work being done by a group of community activists, Cleveland Lead Advocates for Safe Housing (CLASH). Those activists, who have helped bring the issue of lead poisoning in the city’s youth to the forefront, testified in front of the City Council’s Health and Human Services Committee Monday morning.
CLASH’s testimony comes two weeks after the coalition of public, private and philanthropic leaders – called the Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition – unveiled its policy recommendations before a packed committee hearing.
Unlike the Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition, CLASH has already drafted proposed legislation.
CLASH’s proposed legislation would require landlords to certify that their properties are ‘lead safe’ by 2021. The legislation would also require a property’s lead safe status be disclosed on advertisements. Additional tenant protections would also be included. The protections contained in CLASH’s proposed legislation would allow tenants to terminate leases, suspend rent payments or pay prorated rent until the landlord makes the necessary repairs. Tenants would also be eligible for relocation if lead hazards displace them.
There would be a carve out for landlords that are renting their properties out to immediate family members.
The explicit tenant protection provisions are one of the key differences in CLASH’s proposal versus the Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition’s policy recommendations.
“You would never rent a property if you didn’t know when the rent was due. You would never rent a property if you didn’t know who was paying utilities,” said attorney Rebecca Maurer. “And yet every single day in this city people are renting homes with no concrete knowledge of their house’s lead safe status. That is the work we have to be doing.”
Unlike the Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition’s policy recommendations, CLASH’s proposed legislation would also apply to the litany of at-home daycare's throughout the city.
Members of the Health and Human Services Committee were inquisitive and receptive to CLASH’s viewpoints during the two hours of testimony. Much of the conversation and policy-related questions centered around tenant protections, projected cost of such a program as well as the range of penalties for offending landlords under CLASH’s proposal.
Unlike the Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition’s policy recommendations, CLASH’s proposal includes civil penalties that could escalate to criminal charges for landlords that fail to adhere to the lead safe standard. CLASH representatives said penalties that were strictly civil fines would not be enough of a deterrent, especially for large limited liability companies with foreign investors that own large quantities of property.
“As councilmembers, you know which tools you use against which landlords,” said CLASH member and former city councilman Jeff Johnson. “You know what landlords are doing the bad thing and you want to be able to do more than just fine them, especially if they have deep pockets.”
Throughout the hours of testimony on Monday, both members of CLASH and the Health and Human Services Committee stressed that cooperation with the city’s landlords was paramount as future policy decisions are made.
“We don’t believe in an antagonistic relationship with the landlords,” Johnson said. “We believe that we have to find a way to be partners.”
Cleveland’s lead problems have been well-documented. Brought on by the prevalence of peeling paint and paint dust from the city’s aging housing stock, which predates the federal governments ban on lead-based paint in the late 1970s, the lead crisis has affected potentially thousands of Cleveland children. The toxic heavy metal causes developmental and neurological problems. Exposure to lead can cause issues with cognitive development, affecting a myriad of things, including behavior, IQ scores, hearing and speech.
Darrick Wade knows this all too well.
Wade’s son, Demetrius, died in 2007 after a lengthy battle with complications from severe lead exposure.
“16 hours before his death, he said to me, ‘Dad, look at me. I’m sick. The children are sick,’” Ward said. “He said, ‘Dad something has to be done about this lead.’”
Released earlier this year, two new studies conducted by the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development at Case Western Reserve University found a quarter of kindergartners attending CMSD schools began their education with a history of elevated lead levels in their blood.
Although there is no known safe level of lead in a child’s bloodstream, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has set a level of five micrograms per deciliter as a barometer to identify children with elevated levels. 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.
Despite an overall drop in the rate of children with elevated blood lead levels have been on the decline, children in Cuyahoga County account for more than 40% of the children living in the state with elevated lead levels.
Although it is still likely quite some time until the Cleveland City Council votes on legislation, there appears to be a sense of urgency to put long-term solutions into place.
“These are human beings. These are babies. These are children,” said Councilmember Kerry McCormack.
The Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition will be having a lead safe summit on June 21.