Children’s well-being is at stake in Cleveland’s lead-safe refresh, version 3.0: editorial

The good news is that Cleveland is still trying valiantly to recalibrate its approach to making Cleveland rentals lead-safe by 2028 -- this time by creating a special section in the city’s Housing and Building Department that will take a case-management approach to helping noncompliant small landlords navigate the bureaucracy, financial and other challenges.

The bad news is that all signs point to cratering landlord compliance, especially among smaller landlords. Meanwhile, hundreds of Cleveland children continue to test annually at elevated lead levels in their blood -- 316 last year, compared with 257 in 2022,’s Courtney Astolfi reports, although the higher number could reflect more robust testing.

According to Astolfi, only about 8% of smaller Cleveland landlords, those renting two units, were believed to be in compliance with the city’s lead-safe requirements at the end of December, compared with 40% of 11-unit-plus apartment buildings. And the number of first-time lead-safe certifications dropped in the final three months of last year to 345, their lowest level in more than two years. 

As we editorialized last fall, small fixes, nibbling around the edges, aren’t going to save this critical program, upon which the future health and well-being of Cleveland’s young people rests.

For a start, Cleveland may want to rethink its nonpunitive approach to inducing landlord cooperation and buy-in, with more aggressive measures to enforce the city’s lead-safe requirements, including through Cleveland Housing Court and via enhanced inspections. Otherwise, the corrosive attitude that seems to exist now -- that landlords who take the city’s lead-safe requirements seriously and who try to comply are suckers -- will persist and grow.

No, these compliant landlords are not suckers. They’re responsible landlords who want their tenants to be safe and the children in their apartments not to be exposed to toxic lead levels at a young age -- toxic exposure that correlates strongly with later trauma and violence, learning disabilities and stunted opportunities in life.

Cleveland owes these children the same care and protection. That’s really what the lead-safe law is all about, and those are really the stakes in this effort.

Laudably, the Bibb administration and City Council have been focused on improving the tools, staffing, laws and approach needed for better housing code enforcement. The city’s new “residents first” ordinance takes a holistic approach to beefing up code enforcement, tracking vacant properties and cracking down on noncompliant absentee landlords, although Council should rethink its short-sighted watering-down of the package’s point-of-sale inspections. City inspections at the time of a sale are a critical way that communities with older homes and lots of renters police the condition of their residential properties.

Meanwhile, given Cleveland’s acute shortage of affordable housing, the city needs to do all it can now to preserve and augment the safe, affordable, rental housing it has.

The lead-safe effort is an integral part of that. That means cracking down on the lead-safe scofflaws, enhancing support for smaller landlords, augmenting the contributed funding that’s helped Cleveland close financing gaps for landlords who do care and want to fix their properties and rethinking how the whole program works. That includes taking another look at the intervals required for recertifications and ensuring the training and availability of disinterested lead-safe technicians who won’t try to shake down landlords, so as to make the whole system less onerous and fairer for landlords.
In the end, however, the responsibility is Cleveland’s to ensure its lead-safe law is being complied with, and that children who reside in those rental units are safe. Cleveland’s children deserve no less.