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'Enforcement is near' for many landlords as part of Cleveland's lead poisoning prevention law

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Posted at 6:15 PM, May 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-24 18:52:33-04

CLEVELAND — Cleveland city leaders warned Monday that enforcement may soon be coming to certain landlords who have not had their properties certified as part of the landmark lead poisoning prevention ordinance passed by City Council in July 2019. The so-called Lead Safe Cleveland ordinance requires all landlords in the city to have their rental properties certified as lead-safe by 2023.

Under the ordinance, the lead-safe program will be rolled out by zip code through December 2022. The 44120 zip code on the far east side and the 44135 zip code on the far west side were required to have lead safe certifications by March 31 of this year. However, only 97 properties have the certifications, according to Ayonna Blue-Donald, the director of Cleveland's Department of Building and Housing.

Donald said since the legislation was passed in the summer of 2019, her department has been building the necessary systems and beefing up the city's rental registry while also hiring and training the necessary staff.

"Any time there is a new piece of legislation or something that is to be enforced, there is a ramp-up period, not only for the department, but the community for landlords to adhere to," Donald told members of the City Council's Health and Human Services Committee. "Building and Housing is not just here for enforcement. However, the legislation was put into place to enforce. We fully anticipated thousands of lead-safe certifications in the first quarter [of 2021]. We're less than 100. That's a stark reality that enforcement is near for many landlords."

Donald said the shortfall in the number of projected lead-safe certifications is also partly due to the ongoing pandemic and the eviction moratorium. Fewer landlords have registered on the city's rental registry, which is the backbone of the lead prevention law. Once the moratorium is lifted, Donald expects there to be a substantial increase in rental registrations and that she is hopeful that the city will have more than 60,000 properties properly registered.

The Lead Safe Cleveland ordinance was a landmark piece of legislation passed amid overwhelming data showing Cleveland's youth was being poisoned by the toxic heavy metal at alarming rates. A 2019 study by researchers at Case Western Reserve University found a quarter of CMSD kindergartners had elevated levels of lead 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. The federal government banned lead-based paint in 1978. Exposure to lead can cause issues with cognitive development, affecting a myriad of things, including behavior, IQ scores, hearing and speech.

Councilman Kerry McCormack (Ward 3) said of Cleveland children with elevated lead levels: "There are an inexcusably high number of children in our community. One child is too much."

The Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition, a consortium of public, private and philanthropic entities, has also been working to fully fund the Lead Safe Home Fund. The fund, which has amassed more than $40 million through public contributions, grants and private donations, will be used to assist qualifying landlords with getting their properties into compliance as well as any necessary lead abatement. Additionally, the LSCC has also formally requested that the city use $17.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding as part of the Lead Safe Home Fund.

"We all understand the value and intent behind this is important work," said Councilman Charles Slife (Ward 17). "As Director Donald said, this isn't an intent to put extreme financial burdens on property owners and force them to raise their rent to pay for it."

As part of the Lead Safe Home Fund, qualifying landlords that receive financial assistance will be under certain stipulations, including caps on rent increases limited to 3% for a period of two years.

Dr. Rob Fischer, an associate professor at Case Western Reserve University and author of the studies that examined elevated blood lead levels in Cleveland children, said the majority of lead poisoning cases in Cleveland come from rental properties. Children can be exposed to lead through lead-based paint that is prevalent on much of the city's aging housing stock.

The neighborhoods with the highest proportions of kindergartners who have a history of elevated blood lead levels are Glenville (40.4%), St. Clair-Superior (36.2%), Buckeye-Woodhill (34%), Broadway-Slavic Village (34.6%). On the West Side, the Stockyards neighborhood, 34% of resident kindergartners had elevated blood lead levels. The fact that many of these neighborhoods are among the city’s poorest isn’t a coincidence, Dr. Fischer said.