Cleveland City Council Digs In To Lead Paint Proposal

A house with a partially boarded window
Lead paint in homes built before 1978 is a major source of poisoning in Cleveland. [ideastream file image]
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Members of the Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition took questions from city council Monday on their proposal to require landlords to protect tenants from lead paint.

The coalition released its 33 recommendations last week after several months of discussion. Under the proposal, Cleveland landlords would be required to hire private inspectors to ensure their properties are safe from lead paint chips and dust.

Council President Kevin Kelley asked council and the coalition to gather more information on rental property owners in the city, saying many council members only know landlords who gain notoriety by causing problems.  

“I know the bad actors in Ward 13,” Kelley said, “but I certainly don’t know all the good actors, or the people that would be affected by this that may be living on a very thin margin.”

Mark McDermott of the coalition’s policy committee said Case Western Reserve University researchers are producing an analysis of rental housing and landlords. 

The coalition wants to raise philanthropic funds to help landlords with lead remediation.

Councilman Anthony Hairston said those dollars should only be available for property owners who truly need it.

“I would not want to see us incentivize the use of vouchers for those who have the ability to take care of the problem,” Hairston said.

Kim Foreman, a coalition member and the executive director of nonprofit Environmental Health Watch, told Hairston that some landlords may need guidance and some funds in order to get on track.

“All landlords are not villains,” Foreman said. “A lot of them just need education, compliance assistance.”

The city would impose civil, not criminal, penalties for failure to comply. Abigail Staudt of the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland explained that the coalition did not want to disproportionately penalize smaller and African-American landlords who may have less funds. 

“We wanted to avoid furthering any racial inequities and injustices by criminalizing the penalties,” Staudt said.

But Councilman Kevin Conwell said he’d be open to imposing tougher penalties.

“I’m African-American, but if I don’t do what’s right, and the children are affected, and I’m causing harm dealing with lead to the children that’s in my unit, then Judge O’Leary must take it to the highest level,” Conwell said, referring to Judge Ronald O’Leary of Cleveland Housing Court.

Other council members said a stiffer response might be needed for some landlords who don’t respond to civil fines.

“Sometimes there are just, you can give people two, three, four, five breaks, but ultimately the only way to get their attention and get them to do it right is with criminal enforcement,” Councilman Matt Zone said.

Cleveland Lead Advocates for Safe Housing, a separate group advocating a voter initiative on lead paint, said last week that the coalition should have proposed requirements for daycares, too. At the hearing, McDermott said he was open to that idea.

“We think it would be great if you could figure out how to include daycares in the legislation,” McDermott told council in response to a question from health committee chairman Blaine Griffin. “We weren’t sure exactly how to approach that, honestly.”

Council has not yet taken up legislation on the coalition’s proposal. Griffin said he is planning more hearings on the recommendations, including one with members of CLASH later in May.

Former councilman and mayoral candidate Jeff Johnson told ideastream last week that CLASH wants council to follow up with legislation.

“They have to have a strong law at the end of this process and they have to pass it,” Johnson said at the time. “Then and only then will CLASH believe the citizens are being respected.”

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