CLEVELAND, Ohio – Two years into the city of Cleveland’s efforts to proactively fight child lead-poisoning, roughly 80% of rental units haven’t been certified as lead-safe.
Meanwhile, the city has begun testing its landmark 2019 lead law in housing court, issuing a handful of citations to negligent property owners in hopes of finding the right approach to enforcement.
Now is a noteworthy moment in Cleveland’s fight against lead contamination, as Dec. 31 marked the last of eight rolling deadlines by which time property owners in various parts of the city were to demonstrate for the first time that their rental units had been deemed lead-safe by certified inspectors.March 31 is the legal deadline by which all properties in the city must be certified, but Cleveland still has a long way to go on what public officials have called one of the most vexing challenges the city faces.
While the final batch of data from 2022 won’t be made public until Feb. 9, the most recent data available, from the end of September, shows a consistent pattern: Roughly 20% of estimated rental units overall have gone through the lead-safe certification process, leaving the vast majority non-compliant.
A closer look at the numbers
Data shows that compliance is significantly higher among rental units in large commercial housing complexes, as well as rental units located in areas of the city given the earliest deadlines back in 2021, which means they’ve had longer to complete inspections, make repairs and get their certifications approved by the city.
Apartment buildings with 11 or more units lead the pack. Roughly 42% of such properties bound the earliest deadline, in March 2021, have been certified, according to Case Western Reserve University’s Center on Poverty and Community Development, which is serving as Cleveland’s auditor for the program and provides the data.
Compliance steadily drops for those properties with more recent deadlines. In September, for example, large buildings that had just passed their September deadline registered at about 12% compliance.
To date, single-family homes averaged a compliance rate of approximately 9%, while compliance for doubles hovered at just over 5%, according to the data.
Among all rental types, homes that were previously registered on the city’s rental registry were much more likely to have been certified as lead-safe, averaging at about 20%. Only about 5.5% of homes not previously on the registry had been certified, according to the data.
Homes built after 1978, when lead paint was banned, are exempt from the certification law, but about 90% of Cleveland homes were built prior to that.
More work ahead
Case’s Rob Fischer, who serves as the head auditor on Cleveland’s lead-safe work, said the city’s goal amounts to a “big, big agenda” and noted that “as time passes, we’re seeing more and more compliance.”
“But the volume of applications is probably not where we need to be, in order to get to the ultimate goal of lead-safe rental housing in Cleveland in a timely way,” Fischer said.
Over the first three-quarters of 2022, the city received an average of 1,000 applications every three months. “To reach a 7‐year goal of compliance (by 2028), the volume of…applications would need to reach approximately 2,500,” the auditor’s September report states.
Cleveland does appear, however, to be somewhat in line time-wise with other cities that have sought to tackle lead, such as Rochester, New York. Around 12 months into Rochester’s efforts, it had reached 8% compliance. Following one year of efforts in Cleveland, compliance was around 9%, the report shows.
Fischer said seasons affect the work, as painting and other repairs required prior to certification often can’t be completed in the winter. The pandemic likely slowed Cleveland’s initial progress as well, he said.
And given that single- and double- homes have lower compliance, and are often owned by smaller-scale landlords, “it’s a lot of properties, a lot of different owners that have to be mobilized to get on this path,” Fischer said.
Getting owners to comply
The city and its partners, including the Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition, are essentially employing a carrot-and-stick approach to get owners in compliance.
The coalition is providing incentives to help owners pay for needed repairs or reward those who obtain certifications, while the city’s Building and Housing Department has the ability to issue criminal charges to hold owners accountable and – ideally -- get them to make their properties lead-safe.
Similar to certifications, the “carrot” of grants, loans and other incentives weren’t necessarily going out the door as quickly as initially hoped in the first two years, said Ayonna Blue Donald of Enterprise Community Partners, which is coordinating the coalition’s work. To address that, Blue Donald said the coalition pivoted, and made the incentives available to virtually all owners, rather than keeping in place income-related limitations.
Now, most owners qualify for at least $4,500 in grants to help them complete repairs, or at least $750 in incentives, for properties that required no repairs and were found to be lead-safe, she said.
Owners must re-certify their properties as lead-safe every two years. While officials largely relied on the “carrot” approach for the first two-year cycle, the city’s “stick” approach is ramping up as the second cycle begins.
Martin said those cases will be used as tests, to hone the city’s legal strategy going forward.
Two owners who were cited already agreed to pay $500 fines, so their cases were closed.
“The idea was to keep children from being poisoned, and not just to be punitive,” said Martin. So paying off the ticket -- and leaving a property potentially unsafe for its occupants -- is not the outcome the city wants.
The ticket, Martin said, “was kind of a first shot across the bow.” Next steps could include issuing code violations and charging the owner with a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to $1,000 or six months in jail, she said.
The city is generally looking to target large apartment buildings first, likely those with five or more units, officials said. Properties that have already poisoned children will also be a priority when it comes to criminal charges.
The hope, said Blue Donald, is that increased enforcement from Building and Housing will push more owners to the coalition, where they can get resources they need to help make homes lead-safe.
Martin said the city also plans to launch a marketing campaign to help get the word out.
“Our goal is to push public awareness this year. This is the year for us to really push the message to landlords, so they know there are funds out there to help repair your building… and there are ways to do this where we can all achieve the goal of not poisoning children,” Martin said.
For more information about how to make homes lead-safe, visit the coalition’s website at leadsafecle.org, or call 833-601-LEAD (5323).