Two strategies one goal

Unraveling a ball of confusion over lead poisoning

Last week City Council’s Finance Committee crafted an important compromise between the Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition (LSCC) and the City’s Departments of Community Development and Law. At the heart of the dispute is two different approaches for addressing issue of childhood lead poisoning.

For almost 50 years, Federal and State policies to fight childhood lead poisoning were built around a poisoned child strategy which involves medical testing of at risk children and then working backwards to identify and abate the source of the poisoning. When Cleveland children show an elevated blood lead level, the Ohio Department of Health refers the report to the Cleveland Department of Public Health to conduct a lead risk assessment and issue a Lead Hazard Control Order (LHCO) which requires the property owner to abate (remove) the hazard.

In 2016, Cleveland Lead Advocates for Safe Housing (CLASH) began advocating a poisoned house strategy, inspired by efforts in Toledo, The poisoned house strategy requires all owners of all rental housing units built before 1978 to certify that their homes are lead safe. With the passage of the Lead Safe Certificate ordinance in 2019, owners of rental properties are required to pass a lead clearance test. The standard of compliance is “lead safe,” not lead free. Owners can use interim controls like fresh painting, covering bare soil, and deep cleaning to keep lead out of the living space of the unit. Because these are interim controls, owners of pre-1978 properties must retest their units every two years to assure that the controls are maintained and still effective.

So, now there are two strategies to reach the goal of protecting Cleveland’s children from lead poisoning. The poisoned child strategy involves child testing and abatement. The poisoned house strategy requires interim controls and clearance testing to make properties less risky. Cleveland’s Department of Public Health is responsible for the poisoned babies programs and Cleveland’s Department of Building and Housing certifies the rental properties as lead safe. Two strategies (children and homes), two standards (lead free and lead safe) managed by two different departments.

Here’s where it gets a little more complicated. To assist owners of poisoned houses, Cleveland’s Department of Community Development (DCD) uses HUD grant funds to abate (remove) the lead hazards. To assist owners of pre 1978 rental properties, the Department of Building and Housing works with LSCC to assist owners identify lead hazards and undertake interim controls to make homes lead safe.

Last week’s Council compromise, distributes American Rescue Plan funds to support both strategies. The Department of Community Development receives Stimulus funds to supplement their HUD dollars to abate homes that have already poisoned children and LSCC receives stimulus funds help owners undertake interim controls to become certified lead safe.

That leaves one other gap. According to the Ohio Department of Health, there are currently 384 houses in Cleveland with delinquent Lead Hazard Control Orders. Their owners have never complied with these orders and the City has never brought these cases to Court. These properties continue to spread lead dust to surrounding properties. Worse yet, according to a 2020 survey by CLASH volunteers, about 30% of these delinquent homes are still occupied, despite being placarded as unfit for occupancy. This week’s compromise will send $1M of the stimulus dollars to the Law Department’s Code Enforcement unit to bring criminal and civil charges against theses delinquent properties.

This compromise is not a “change of strategy,” but rather a recognition that both paths lead toward one goal: ending childhood lead poisoning in Cleveland. Neither strategy alone will be sufficient.

Spencer Wells, Treasurer of Cleveland Lead Advocates for Safe Housing (CLASH).