In 2019, Cleveland City Council passed an historic law that requires landlords to have rental properties built before 1978 certified as lead safe. But the process is off to a slow start, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and bureaucratic roadblocks for hiring city staff required to enforce the mandate.
Compliance, while low for the first six months, is beginning to pick up, Antoinette Allen, interim director of Cleveland’s building and housing department, said at the first Lead Safe Advisory Board meeting on Aug. 15. As of mid-August, 1054 units in 432 buildings were approved for a Lead Safe Certification.
For Yvonka Hall, president of Cleveland Lead Advocates for Safe Housing (CLASH), those numbers don’t offer a solution to prevent childhood lead poisoning. Hall said the city asked taxpayers for funding that would allow it to hire staff and promised that thousands of structures would be registered by now. CLASH is a grassroots group that advocates to end childhood lead poisoning by getting rental properties lead safe certified or repaired.
WHAT HELP IS AVAILABLE FOR LANDLORDS?
Property owners with an income less than 200% of the federal poverty level can receive a grant up to $7,000 or have 90% of home repairs paid for. For example, a family of four with an annual income of about $53,000 would meet the standards of less than 200% of the federal poverty level and could apply for the grant.
Landlords who make more than 200% of the federal poverty level but have tenants with an income less than 200% can qualify for a $500 grant.
“We knew the process would be slow, but we thought that they would actually stay onto that process and keep pushing and putting things out there and letting people know,” she said.
The Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition, or Lead Safe CLE, is a public-private partnership formed in 2019. The website says its 2021 goals are to “champion the successful rollout of Cleveland’s lead safe certification” by administering home loans and grants, setting and meeting fundraising goals, educating the community about lead poisoning, and advocating for policy changes.
Lead safe certification involves hiring a certified professional to check the rental for lead hazards. If found, the landlord needs to repair the home. When a rental property passes a lead risk assessment, the landlord can submit an application to the city to receive a two-year lead safe certification.
The city has allowed landlords to prepare for the change by spreading out the deadline requirement in increments. Lead Safe CLE assists property owners with lead poisoning prevention and the new certification protocols. Some financial relief has also been provided to landlords for lead prevention home repairs.
A slow rollout
The coalition includes groups like Environmental Health Watch, which contracts with the coalition to run the Lead Safe Resource Center, Case Western Reserve University’s Mandel School of Applied Social Science and the city of Cleveland as well as more than 400 members—some of them are families impacted by lead poisoning. The coalition has raised more than $45 million with a target goal of $99.4 million to help landlords with home repairs. Property owners can call into the resource center to ask questions about the certification and how to apply for financial assistance.
The city put together a Lead Certificate Roll Out Schedule, under which landlords owning property in specific zip code areas have to be lead safe certified by certain deadlines between March 2021 and March 2023. Each group of zip codes has a 90-day time frame to become lead safe certified.
Among the neighborhoods with the earliest deadline of March 31 were Mount Pleasant and part of Buckeye, which are in Zone 1 on the rollout schedule. In comparison to the 432 buildings certified, as of June 30 Zone 1 had 100 structures approved for certification and 130 applications were submitted and Zone 2 had 80 structures approved with 103 submitted applications. There are an estimated 14,000 rental properties between both zones, meaning that applications for certification make up just 2% of all rentals.
“We do have a long way to go in getting the full population of rental owners to compliance,” said Rob Fischer, a professor at Case Western Reserve University’s Mandel School of Applied Social Science, which the city hired to fill the role of Lead Safe Auditor.
The resource center has been canvassing neighborhoods by foot according to each deadline on the rollout schedule, but was not as successful in informing people in Ward 1 about the new law because it was winter in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. Fred Ward, action team program supervisor, said his crew is working on a plan to revisit the houses in Zone 1.
“We’re making strides right now to train people with information to go back to those [neighborhoods in] the first quarter area,” Ward said.
One of the people trained by the coalition – a mother of seven who dealt with elevated lead levels in some of her children – now helps others impacted by lead get the resources they need.
The team knocks on every door two to three times before moving onto the next neighborhood and if the tenant or homeowner isn’t home, they leave a brochure with the resource center’s information. Ward said it’s hard to assess an apartment building, but he talks to tenants and gives them a brochure when they’re outside.
At the Lead Safe Advisory Board meeting, Allen said the issue with hiring staff is the pay and the typing requirement. She said the city has lowered the typing requirement from 55 words per minute to 35 words per minute in order to attract more candidates. They are also making other requirements more flexible by allowing people who don’t have lead certification training to obtain it within the first six months of employment.
Persistence and adjustment
Slavic Village landlord Joseph Libretti, who opposed the city law when it was being discussed, took the coalition’s four-week training course on lead risk assessment. “They really support the landlord to educate and make the property safe,” he said. Libretti is one of the lead risk assessors for property owners before they are approved for certification.
In addition to training landlords on lead risk assessment, the coalition also partners with the CHN Housing Partners (CHN), which offers financial assistance to eligible landlords in the form of grants, loans, and other incentives.
Property owners with an income less than 200% of the federal poverty level can receive a grant up to $7,000 or have 90% of home repairs paid for. For example, a family of four with an annual income of about $53,000 would meet the standards of less than 200% of the federal poverty level and could apply for the grant. More than 60 landlords have qualified, said Matt Sattler, director of lead services at CHN. Landlords who make more than 200% of the federal poverty level but have tenants with an income less than 200% can qualify for a $500 grant.
One of Libretti’s tenants applied for the grant and the landlord received $500. Richard Bias, a 35-year landlord veteran with properties in Slavic Village, West Park, and Broadview, received $1,500 for three certified units.
If a loan is provided, CHN offers borrowers a $500 incentive, which is taken off the loan at the end of its seven-year term.
The network provides financial assistance to eligible landlords for repairs, such as repainting walls and specialized cleaning, and also provides a lead risk assessor and contractor to manage the project from start to finish. Every fourth Friday of the month, CHN hosts an online forum for property owners to ask questions about what financial help is available.
“It’s an opportunity for landlords to jump on a Zoom with us and ask any questions they have,” Sattler said.
On average, lead repairs for a typical house in Cleveland costs $3,500, said Emily Lundgard, senior program director, Ohio, for Enterprise Community Partners Inc.
“We really believe that this is a reasonable expectation that landlords should meet,” she said. “They have a duty as a business owner to provide a safe, decent unit.”
Scott Kroehle owns 11 properties in the Detroit Shoreway, Old Brooklyn, and Brooklyn Center neighborhoods and was part of the coalition’s policy committee that helped shape the lead safe certification legislation.
“As a landlord, I am making my living as a provider of housing,” Kroehle said, “and if I’m going to make that choice, with that choice comes I think an ethical obligation to do whatever I can to help right this wrong.”
But landlords Joseph Libretti and Richard Bias argue that the city’s process doesn’t make sense. They say the city has not yet targeted neighborhoods with the highest risk and that only the houses likely to pass the clearance examination are being tested.
“As a landlord I’m going to make sure that my houses pass, but the mechanics could have been laid out where they targeted the people that were most at risk,” Bias said.
Landlord Scott Kroehle said that the program has raised awareness and that because this is a complicated new program for Cleveland to operate, it will take time to refine.
As part of Cleveland’s lead analysis, it was found that Rochester, New York decreased by 85% the number of young children who had lead poisoning cases that required a public health response, Wyonette Cheairs, senior program officer, Ohio, for Enterprise Community Partners, said in an email.
“We don’t expect the next few months or even years to be easy or without challenges,” she said. “Changing expectations, implementing a proactive inspection system, building trust within the community, and deploying new home-repair products will require persistence and adjustment.”
CORRECTION: This story originally misstated that Case Western Reserve’s Medical Center was involved in the Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition. It has been corrected to note that Case Western Reserve University’s Mandel School of Applied Social Science , not the Medical Center, is involved.
Kelly Krabill is a journalism major at Kent State University and an intern with The Land.